Virginia Republicans tried to make the best of a grim electoral landscape this weekend at their annual retreat, which marked Ed Gillespie's first public appearance since his loss in the governor's race seemed to drive the party further into the political wilderness.
Gillespie's contest became a symbol of a party struggling to bridge the gap between President Trump's populism and the need to appeal to minorities and independent voters in a purple state. The same forces will be in play in the coming year, when the GOP will try to unseat Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and has to defend seven congressional seats in the state.
Republican activists, elected officials and consultants gathered at a mountain resort as snow fell Friday and Saturday, offering sometimes vastly different solutions to that vexing puzzle. The contrast was most on display among politicians vying for the right to take on Kaine.
One of them is Corey Stewart, who narrowly lost the gubernatorial primary to Gillespie. He reprised his role as the say-anything Trump acolyte, while Del. Nick Freitas (Culpeper), a conservative who just won his second term in the state legislature, used the event to formally enter the race. Activists were abuzz about other possible candidates who could help the party rebrand.
Virginia Republicans are trying to regroup at a profoundly low point. After losing every statewide election since 2009, they are certainly used to defeat, but some of those contests were squeakers, including Gillespie's near-upset of Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) in 2014. The near-wins offered hope, sustaining wait-till-next-year bravado in a group that bills its annual gathering the "Advance," as opposed to "retreat."
But the 2017 shellacking — the GOP lost at least 15 seats in the legislature — is testing the limits of even the most stubborn optimism, given how badly Gillespie lost, how widely the damage spread down the ticket and how poorly Virginians rate President Trump. Some Republicans skipped the annual gathering this year, convinced that they will just have to wait out the Trump era.
"The reality is, as long as President Trump is in the White House, Virginia is going to be a very difficult place for Republicans," said Tucker Martin, a former Gillespie strategist who opted out of the event this year.
For those who did attend, political consultant Carlyle Gregory served 150 Republicans a bleak PowerPoint over breakfast.
Bar graph after bar graph showed Democrats reeling in more small donors, more big bucks from political action committees, seemingly more of everything needed to spread their message. Gregory stressed the need to appeal to younger voters — harking back to the days when half of them broke for Ronald Reagan — with a bleak admission: "I have no idea how we do this."
"Long term we can't afford to take this kind of beating," read one slide in his presentation.
That did little to lighten the mood.
"Whether it's politics or business, consultants are always good at pointing out the problems but always a dollar short on the solutions," said George Urban, a 40-year-old financial consultant from Albemarle County.
But Urban, chairman of his local GOP, had his own idea about the way forward — a theory that the blowout might end up inspiring Republicans, just as Trump's election lit a fire under Democrats.
"Hopefully we can use disappointment as a chance to reflect and return to core [party-building] activities," he said.
Dennis Free, 62, former chief deputy sheriff in Virginia Beach, said he thinks the party's soul-searching will make it stronger.
"George Patton said, 'If we're all agreeing, somebody's not thinking,' " he said. "I like this, where we're going to have a robust debate."
State GOP Chairman John Whitbeck told the crowd that Republicans were up against Democrats bent on punishing Trump no matter what, relating a conversation Del. Randy Minchew (R-Loudoun) had with his sister-in-law after losing reelection.
She told Minchew that she had voted a straight Democratic ticket to "send a message to Trump" — even though that meant voting against her brother-in-law.
"This weekend is the beginning of taking this back," Whitbeck said.
The party recorded an official attendance of just over 400, which Whitbeck said was better than expected.
Gillespie, who got an ovation from attendees over lunch, thanked volunteers for what would have been record-breaking results had he not faced a Democratic tsunami.
"I want to thank you for all you did in the course of this campaign to help us get the second-most votes for governor in the history of the commonwealth of Virginia," Gillespie said, with a chuckle. "But as we know, that was second to Governor-elect Ralph Northam, who got the most votes ever. . . . But we clearly left it all on the field, and we clearly turned out our votes."
There were lighter moments as young campaign staffers from all over the state rehashed the campaign over late-night drinks at the hotel bar.
They got a kick out of former White House press secretary Sean Spicer, who showed up as a surprise guest and weathered a chorus of "Spicy," a cheeky nickname coined by "Saturday Night Live."
Eschewing the usual practice of holding a boozy bash in a hotel suite to woo supporters, Stewart held his party in a steakhouse down the street. The move allowed him to avoid giving a cut of the proceeds to the party he tangled with during the governor's race.
"I like this place," Stewart said, standing in the pine-paneled bar. "It's not quite as dry and dull as a conference room."
Just as Freitas was about to jump into the ring, Stewart came out with an attention-grabbing tweet, reviving conspiracy theories about former president Barack Obama's birthplace. He also suggested that Democrats forged a yearbook inscription to discredit U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore, whom Stewart endorsed and has defended against accusations of sexual misconduct with teenage girls when Moore was in his 30s.
When asked hours later whether he believed Democrats had forged Obama's birth certificate, Stewart paused, chuckled and said, "No. . . . The point is that Democrats and the Republican establishment, they just make up stuff about conservatives and it's never questioned."
Freitas announced his Senate candidacy in a speech laced with conservative catnip espousing limited government. The Army veteran is a government defense contractor and early supporter of Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.).
Freitas avoided combat with fellow Republicans and focused on Kaine.
"People really always associated Tim Kaine with being a very nice guy," he said. "Then he joined on with Hillary Clinton. When you look at the DNC and how they disenfranchised millions of their own voters, there's going to be accountability for that."
He said Kaine's voting record often lines up with "the far left wing, dare I say Marxist, version of the party."
In response, Kaine painted the entire GOP as too extreme for Virginia.
"As Republicans race to the far right and compete over who will be the biggest Trump supporter," campaign spokesman Ian Sams said, Kaine "will be prepared to win no matter how their primary shakes out."
The race is not targeted by national parties for cash or resources, but for Virginia Republicans, it represents a chance perhaps not to win but to field a candidate who can give the party a new face and unite disparate ideologies.
James Cohen, a Virginia Beach landlord and party activist, would like to see a candidate who supports the president without trying to mimic his antics.
He thinks that could be Freitas or former governor James S. Gilmore III, who has said he is considering running. Or, Bert Mizusawa, a major general in the U.S. Army Reserve with whom some Republicans had been "pleading" to get in, Cohen said. Mizusawa has not responded to phone messages seeking comment in recent days.
"Seventy-five, 80 percent of the attendees don't identify with the antics of Corey Stewart," Cohen said, "but they do identify with the policies of the Trump administration."
Stewart, who is close to Trump's former chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, said he expected to be endorsed by the president.
On Saturday, two key Trump allies — Mark Lloyd, Trump's Virginia campaign director, and Mike Rubino, a senior adviser in the state — endorsed Freitas.
Stewart's reaction: "LOL. Nobody cares."