RICHMOND — Ed Gillespie's perceived snubbing of a former Donald Trump operative he had hired to whip up support for his gubernatorial campaign is causing an uproar among GOP activists already exasperated by Gillespie's highly cautious stance toward the president.
Jack Morgan had expected to play a key role at a Gillespie rally headlined by Vice President Pence on Saturday in Abingdon, a coal country region that voted overwhelmingly for Trump in November, activists said. But he found himself sidelined.
Gillespie hired Morgan, a colorful evangelical preacher and former 9th Congressional District GOP chairman, as his ambassador to Trump country after nearly losing the June primary to a rival who had run in the president's bombastic, populist image.
But Gillespie's campaign did not let Morgan help plan or speak at the rally — over the objections of another GOP candidate who employs Morgan, state Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, who is running for lieutenant governor and wanted him to introduce her.
Morgan's wife was so offended that she refused to drive John Whitbeck, chair of the Republican Party of Virginia, to the airport for his return trip, according to three Republicans familiar with the matter. And in an area of the state that Gillespie needs to turn out in force to overcome Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) on Nov. 7, activists took to social media to vent their outrage.
"I will guarantee you all this," Republican activist William Totten, the Smyth County director for Vogel, wrote on Facebook, "should Ed ever run for anything in politics again I will work my every waking moment to make sure he loses the primary."
Blunter still was activist Patricia Bast Lyman. "Ed showing his elitist butt to the 9th was a MONUMENTAL error from which he will not recover, " she posted on Facebook.
Morgan has told associates that he quit the Gillespie campaign but will continue to work for Vogel, according to the three Republicans, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.
Gillespie spokesman David Abrams denied that Morgan quit but would not elaborate.
"Jack Morgan is working hard to help us turn out our vote in critically important Southwest Virginia," Abrams said. "Any rumor about Jack Morgan quitting is false."
Morgan declined to be interviewed, but in a brief text to The Washington Post he wrote: "I continue to work to ensure the entire Republican ticket wins on Nov. 7."
He did not initially respond to a follow-up text seeking to clarify if that meant he was still working for Gillespie or only Vogel. But hours later, in a text message coordinated with Gillespie's campaign, Morgan wrote that he had not quit. He directed further questions to the campaign, which declined to specify any public events that Morgan would staff over the next week.
Vogel spokesman Chris West declined to comment.
Coming three weeks before Election Day, the episode is just one sign that Gillespie's risk-averse, thread-the-needle approach to Trump and hot-button cultural issues is backfiring with some members of his party's conservative base.
In the past two weeks, Gillespie has struggled to smooth over relations with some religious conservatives after privately promising a Northern Virginia business group that he would oppose any legislation seeking to regulate bathroom use by transgender people — a stance that conflicted with some of his public statements.
On Monday, the Virginia First Foundation issued a statement saying that neither candidate for Virginia governor lines up with its position that transgender people should be required to use the bathrooms that correlate with their gender at birth.
And on Tuesday, conservative radio host Laura Ingraham criticized Gillespie on the air for his apparent reluctance to campaign with Trump, and for rebuffing her offers to stump for him or put him on her show.
"I actually offered to help him!" Ingraham said, marveling that Gillespie was raising money that day with former president George W. Bush in Richmond and Northern Virginia. "But he thinks George W. Bush is going to — I don't know. God bless him. I hope it all works out."
Abrams said Gillespie has been trying to find a date to appear on Ingraham's show.
Most of Gillespie's conservative critics say they will still vote for him over Northam, but they question how hard the grass roots will work for him. Most polls show the race — the nation's only competitive governor's contest — about tied. A lot is riding on the results, which will be widely read as an early referendum on Trump and a harbinger of the 2018 congressional midterm elections.
Gillespie's campaign is a still-unfolding case study in whether an establishment Republican can successfully navigate swing-state politics in the Trump era.
A former Republican National Committee chairman, Washington lobbyist and adviser to Bush, Gillespie has struggled to find his footing regarding Trump. He has tried to avoid weighing in on Trump's policies and tweets. When Trump surprised Gillespie with a tweeted endorsement Oct. 6, Gillespie did not even retweet it.
In a purple state that gave Hillary Clinton her only Southern victory last year, Gillespie has looked for ways to excite rural Trump supporters without turning off moderates and inflaming Democrats in the state's deep-blue population centers.
Prominent Republicans, from the White House on down, urged Gillespie to hire Trump strategists after he nearly lost the June primary to Corey Stewart, a Prince William supervisor and Trump's onetime Virginia campaign chairman who dubbed him "Establishment Ed." In August, Gillespie hired Morgan, who had worked for Stewart during the primary, to lead his efforts in Southwest Virginia.
Putting the blunt-spoken preacher and motivational speaker on the payroll carried some risk. In a Facebook video posted while campaigning for Gillespie and Vogel, Morgan warned that the country was on the brink of civil war and that communists were behind the effort to remove Confederate statues.
But Morgan, a military veteran who lost a leg rendering aid at the scene of a car accident, is well known and highly regarded in the region.
"The thing I love about Jack is he's bold, he's bold in his speaking," said state Sen. Charles W. Carrico Sr. (R-Grayson), a friend. "People are tired of political answers, and that's what Jack brings to the table."
Morgan's swaggering style is a reliable hit with local audiences, but in a backroom at the Washington County Fairgrounds, as organizers reviewed the program schedule ahead of Pence's arrival, Gillespie's campaign staffers made it clear that Morgan would not be on stage.
Carrico, who attended part of the meeting, said that Morgan appealed to him for help.
"Jack was upset," said Carrico. "Jack is a dynamic speaker because he speaks from the heart, and, you know, sometimes events like these, especially when it's involving a vice president, the candidate likes to be in control and have a message."
Morgan's wife appeared to take the snub even harder than he did, refusing to drive Whitbeck, the party chairman, back to the airport. Morgan himself eventually did so, according to four people familiar with the events.
Whitbeck dismissed that account as coming from "a bad source," but he did not elaborate. "She drove me one way and Jack the other," he said via text.