Ed Gillespie, who has been at the forefront of GOP politics for decades, said he wouldn't encourage others to run for office in his first interview since losing the heated Virginia governor's race last month.
During an 80-minute appearance on "The Axe Files" podcast with Democratic strategist David Axelrod, Gillespie lamented polarization in politics, the challenges of running with Donald Trump in the White House and how journalists cover campaigns. He lost to Democrat Ralph Northam by nine percentage points in a wave election that also saw significant Democratic gains in the state legislature.
Gillespie said running for governor this year was much more challenging than when he challenged U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) in 2014 — and nearly won.
"It's a much more poisonous atmosphere. I don't know if there's causality or correlation, I leave that for others to determine," Gillespie said. "But I could not honestly say to someone that I like and think is a halfway decent human being, 'Yeah, you ought to run for office'."
Still, Gillespie said the campaign made him a better person after traveling across the commonwealth meeting Virginians.
Gillespie, 56, told Axelrod that he won't seek elective office again, but was eyeing opportunities in the not-for-profit sector and would help other GOP candidates in Virginia. Before he was a candidate, Gillespie cycled through Republican operative positions — including as chair of the Republican National Committee under George W. Bush, as a lobbyist and as a corporate consultant.
The interview followed Gillespie's first public appearance since the election at a Virginia GOP retreat, where he praised Republicans for helping drive up turnout.
The interview with Axelrod is streaming online at this link, and available to download as a podcast.
Here are other take-aways from Gillespie's interview:
Trump was the first president since Richard Nixon who didn't campaign for his party's gubernatorial nominee in Virginia.
The Gillespie campaign didn't ask, and the White House didn't offer, Gillespie said. The Republican candidate says he concluded that a rally with Trump would nationalize a race he wanted focused on Virginia issues.
In retrospect, he's not sure if it's possible to run independently from the president.
"It's a tough tight rope to walk," said Gillespie. "And it may not be walkable, to be honest with you."
Ultimately, Vice President Pence rallied with Gillespie in deep-red southwest Virginia, while Trump limited his involvement to tweets and robo-calls.
Gillespie conceded Trump was a factor in the surge of Democratic turnout in November. Trump took the opposite lesson, blasting Gillespie on election night before all the votes were even counted and blaming him for failing to fully embrace Trump.
Gillespie largely avoided criticizing the president during his podcast appearance — but objected to Trump's rhetoric on Confederate statues.
Virginia's memorials to Confederate leaders became a gubernatorial campaign issue after August, when a violent protest by white nationalists in around Charlottesville's Robert E. Lee statue left one dead. Northam said he would advocate for the removal of Confederate monuments. Although Northam later backtracked, Gillespie seized on those comments for campaign ads.
But he blanched at President Trump's apparent response to his ads: tweeting that Gillespie "might even save our great statues/heritage!"
"I never talked about defending heritage because that's not how I see the issue or view it," said Gillespie. "But when the president tweeted about it himself, he tweeted about heritage and that injected it into the discussion in a way I would not and never did...But that tweet contributed to the, again, it polarized it even more."
While Gillespie's public comments on Confederate statues explored the nuances of the debate and encouraged adding historical context, his campaign ads were typically more blunt.
"I'm for keeping them up, and he's for taking them down," he said in one ad that aired 211 times in the Roanoke market two weeks before election.
It wasn't only the president who injected heritage into the debate: The Republican Party of Virginia accused Northam of turning his back on his heritage by supporting the removal of Confederate statues in social media posts that were later deleted.
Gillespie faced a firestorm of criticism during the campaign for ads that critics called racially incendiary and misleading.
Several sought to link MS-13 gang violence to Northam's vote against a ban on sanctuary cities, even though Virginia doesn't have sanctuary cities that choose not to cooperate with federal immigration authorities. And a final ad push highlighted the case of a sex offender whose his rights were temporarily restored under a sweeping voter rights restoration order that Northam supports. Northam, a pediatrician, responded with an ad that said Gillespie's suggestion that he would tolerate anyone hurting a child "despicable."
Gillespie told Axelrod he ran those ads because message testing suggested it would help him win. But he said they were not the issues he wanted to focus on.
"Are those the issues I would have chosen to run on as opposed to the tax cuts and frankly even the criminal justice reform innovative proposals I put forward?" said Gillespie. "That's where I rather the race have been about, but those weren't what was indicating was going to move numbers and help me win."
Gillespie said his campaign message about Virginia's economy lagging behind didn't resonate as well in the prosperous D.C. suburbs — which is why he had to focus on public safety to sway votes.
"The issue that looked like it was going to move voters in the suburbs of Northern Virginia was public safety," he said. "Clearly, (the MS-13 ads) didn't work. Did it create a backlash? I don't think so. But I don't know."
Gillespie's interview came a day before Alabama voters cast ballots in a U.S. Senate race that has turned into something of a referendum on the party's future.
GOP candidate Roy Moore is one of the party's most controversial figures after several women said he pursued them while they were teenagers. Moore is opposed by some Republicans in Congress and supported by President Trump.
Gillespie wouldn't say that Moore should be expelled from the Senate if elected, but said the National Republican Senate Committee had the right approach in severing fundraising ties with him. The Republican National Committee resumed its support after Trump endorsed Moore.
"From a political perspective, I don't think the long-term pain would be worth the short-term gain of the seat politically," said Gillespie.
Later in the podcast, Gillespie suggested that the results in Alabama would test the strength of Trump's ability to tap into voter frustrations.
"There's a lot of people who feel like they are not just being disagreed with but they are being disdained," Gillespie said. "People feel like they are being marginalized and demonized for having concerns by an elite that doesn't understand their concerns."