Virginia’s Republican gubernatorial nominee, Ed Gillespie, who endorsed Donald Trump and has adopted Trump’s positions on immigration, Confederate statues and “sanctuary cities,” has nearly abandoned the pretense that he is a traditional Republican in the mold of his former boss President George W. Bush. In the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s election, Gillespie has decided to embrace, if not Trump (no pictures together, please!), then Trumpism — enthusiastically. He has morphed into his primary opponent, Corey Stewart, a Trump cheerleader who nearly beat Gillespie in that campaign.
Gillespie, in a state that Hillary Clinton won and where Trump’s net disapproval rating is in the double digits, is betting that swing voters stay home while Stewart voters rally to his side. He therefore has made this a referendum on Trump in order to pump up his base in southwest Virginia. Stephen K. Bannon made no bones about it; this is a test run for Trump and Trumpism in swing states.
A cocksure disciple of Trump, Stewart was dismissed as an unknown, underfunded candidate by Virginia’s GOP establishment when he challenged Gillespie, the former lobbyist, Republican Party chair and advisor to President George W. Bush.
But the mockery turned to astonishment when Stewart, chair of Prince Williams County’s Board of Supervisors, came within a percentage point of victory, albeit in a low-turnout primary.
Now, as Gillespie has appropriated his tactics and polls suggest he has narrowed the gap with Democrat Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, Stewart’s stature as a political force is growing as he seeks to challenge Sen. Tim Kaine (D) next year.
“Corey Stewart is the reason Gillespie is going to win,” Stephen K. Bannon, the former White House chief strategist and Trump’s campaign czar, said in an interview. “It was the Trump-Stewart talking points that got Gillespie close and even maybe to victory. It was embracing Trump’s agenda as personified by Corey’s platform. This was not a competitive race four weeks ago. You could have stuck a fork in Gillespie.”
Got that? Embracing Trump’s agenda will win the state for Gillespie.
Gillespie was even overheard calling populous Northern Virginia, where he once sought to make in-roads, “a bit of enemy territory.” So much for unifying the state. So much for keeping divisive national politics out of Virginia. So much for running on a book of policy issues. Now it’s about demonizing blue America to rev up red Americans.
Gillespie seems to think he can do without the sort of swing voters — suburban soccer moms, white-collar workers, minority business leaders — whom the GOP used to court (and whom the last statewide GOP victor, former governor Bob McDonnell, won over). These are voters who reject the idea that an election is akin to a primal scream. Instead, they generally go about choosing a candidate who can actually govern. These voters care about the bread-and-butter issues, such as schools, healthcare and transportation; they know Virginia will not thrive economically if it is seen as regressive and antagonistic toward newcomers. These voters can see what Washington has become — a dysfunctional mess, a cauldron of nastiness and a place where politics is now about grievances, not problem-solving.
Ironically, Virginia used to pride itself on being a bastion of anti-D.C. politics. In his inaugural address, current Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe extolled the Virginia tradition “to put the common good ahead of short-term politics. That’s the Virginia way — it’s a tradition that we should be proud of.”
McAuliffe reiterated his “Virginia way” appeal in his first speech to the Joint Assembly. (“The challenges that we face are considerable; but we are more than capable of solving them if we work together for the good of our great Commonwealth. That is the very essence of the Virginia way.”)
The notion that Virginia could escape the Trumpian wave that has drowned out reason, civility and empathy elsewhere is now being put to the test.
Northam, bland and lacking the instinct to go for the jugular, for better or worse stands for functional politics and bipartisan problem-solving. His politics are decidedly less extreme, less ideological and less mean than anything we’ve seen on the national stage since Trump has heightened polarization and popular anger. Gillespie seems to have said, “If I can barely beat Stewart, I might as well join him.” And so he has run a campaign breathtaking in its hypocrisy.
The thing is, once you’ve campaigned as a Trumpian, you cannot govern rationally, civilly and with goodwill toward the other party. The irony that Gillespie’s former boss Bush 43 now bemoans the destruction of the GOP that he and his father have known is not lost on former Gillespie fans.