A Republican candidate playing the race card, ginning up concern about Hispanics and “sanctuary cities.” A Democratic candidate who is eminently qualified but a lackluster campaigner at best, trying to deflect the oncoming fire from an opponent who is willing to reinvent himself and play to voters’ worst instincts. The polls are all over the map, and it’s far from clear which side will be able to turn out its voters.
That’s the Virginia gubernatorial race, but it is bearing an uncanny resemblance to the 2016 presidential race, which is horrifying to mainstream Republicans and moderate Democrats who think of Republican nominee Ed Gillespie as one of the “good” Republicans. He ran a picture-perfect race for Senate in 2014, coming within a point of Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.). Then he ran a bread-and-butter, policy-intensive race advocating conservative approaches to job creation, energy and more. He avoided social issues but had a strong reputation as a pro-immigration reform Republican from his days as a senior adviser to President George W. Bush. He was a Republican grown-up.
Now, those who admired Gillespie because he was an inclusive, practical-minded Republican — and do not want 21st-century Virginia to be a throwback to the Virginia of the 1960s and early 1970s that obstructed, delayed and resisted school desegregation — have watched Gillespie’s transformation with incredulity.
Certainly, Gillespie’s 180-degree turn is emblematic of the entire GOP. Republicans across the board have become purveyors of fear and division, anxious to play the immigration and race cards and to launch wholly irresponsible plans to cut everyone’s taxes without cutting anything voters value. Rather than stand his ground and be true to his life-long pragmatism and sunny inclusiveness, Gillespie has decided that Trump and his ilk are unbeatable. He’ll go along, echo Trump’s noxious themes, accept Trump’s endorsement and wink to the Trump base — while trying not to horrify his previous supporters.
The race could be narrowing — or not. Gillespie looks to be behind, but might not be. His cynical campaign might work, or Gillespie may be short of voters to counterbalance the hordes of disgusted voters in Northern Virginia who find him symptomatic of a party that has lost its moral bearings and decency. Northam is as moderate and innocuous a Democrat as one can find these days, but in a state where Democrats are generally more moderate than the national party, he might have run out of gas. Or maybe he’s barely good enough to win.
Forget the prognostication (an evergreen suggestion). Here’s what’s key: A Gillespie win would actually be the nail in the coffin of a viable, defensible Republican Party. Gillespie’s victory would signal that there are no “good” Republicans, that to be a Republican means to be a Trumpist with all that it entails. It would confirm the sinking feeling of anti-Trump Republicans that they no longer have a home in the GOP. Worse, they would come to the conclusion that to support a Trumpist GOP means putting party above country and acquiescing to race-baiting. (For what — for a tax cut in an already low-tax state?)
In Virginia, there is no registration by party. (If there were, you’d see many moderate Republicans in the D.C. suburbs re-register.) However, psychologically, many life-long Republicans have “checked out” of the GOP, finding themselves hoping that Trump imitators go down in flames. A Gillespie loss, ironically, might provide a sliver of hope that Trump imitators are playing a losing hand. It would, for example, give traditional Republicans hope that Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), who’s fighting for her political life in the 10th congressional district and who has repudiated Trump and Trumpism (e.g., voting against the GOP health-care bill), not Gillespie, is the future of the party.
In sum, it’s not just Gillespie vs. Northam on the ballot in Virginia next Tuesday. What’s actually at stake is whether there is any hope for an un-Trump Republican Party. Anti-Trump Republicans should think long and hard about not just what kind of governor they want in a state that was thought to have healed the wounds of the past but what kind of Republican Party they want.