A debate erupted among Republican leaders in Virginia on Tuesday night over whether Ed Gillespie's gubernatorial campaign failed because the candidate embraced many of President Trump's tactics or because he remained too distant in the contest's final weeks.
The party's failure to win a statewide race since 2009 has provoked a fresh round of questions and recriminations among GOP leaders that is sure to continue as they digest losing the commonwealth's top three statewide seats for the second successive election cycle.
For Corey A. Stewart, a Trump disciple who lost to Gillespie in the GOP primary for governor, the defeat proved that "Ed failed to excite the base, and that he turned off the base by distancing himself from President Trump."
Stewart, who nearly defeated Gillespie in the low-turnout primary, highlighted such polarizing issues as preserving Confederate monuments and targeting undocumented immigrants, a strategy that Gillespie used as polls appeared to show the two candidates in a close race.
"What it shows is that I was right," Stewart said of his own strategy, which was to tether himself to the president. "If we want to win in the future, we have to be edgy, we have to be strong, and we have to embrace the president of the United States and his agenda. What it shows is that the same-old, same-old style of running campaigns doesn't work. It's an out-of-date philosophy."
Over the course of the campaign, Gillespie appeared to struggle with how closely he wanted to align himself with the president. Even after Trump endorsed him on Twitter, Gillespie did not acknowledge the president's support until he was asked about it by reporters. While he campaigned with Vice President Pence, Gillespie never appeared in public with the president. Last night, Trump appeared to fault the candidate when he tweeted: "Ed Gillespie worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for."
Tom Davis, the former GOP congressman who represented Northern Virginia, drew the opposite conclusion after Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) ran up huge margins Tuesday in counties such as Loudoun and Prince William.
"Ed couldn't escape being a proxy for Trump, which killed him," Davis said. "It's a huge drag on the ticket. It motivated the Democratic base. Democrats came out en masse in protest. This was their first chance to mobilize the base."
"The lesson here is that Republicans have to get their act together," Davis said. "Ed did as well as he could do with the hand he was dealt."
Once a reliable Republican bastion, the commonwealth turned purple as President Obama won the state in 2008 and 2012, victories driven by a growing and diversifying population in Northern Virginia.
Another sign of the state's shift leftward was when Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) defeated Republican Ken Cuccinelli II in 2013, breaking a streak of nine elections in which the party controlling the White House lost the governor's race.
The signs of Republican frustration over the state's transformation were evident last night on social media after the results came in. Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, appeared to blame the loss on the dominance of the suburbs outside Washington.
"DC should annex NOVA and return the governance of VA to Virginians!" Falwell said on Twitter. "The founders intended DC to include all fed employees who are conflicted."
But with Democrats surpassing expectations in Virginia's legislative races last night, Republicans said the party needs to reassess the message it is conveying to voters.
"It's one thing to get swept in a statewide election but it's another thing to lose a supermajority in the state House," a Republican strategist said, speaking on the condition of anonymity so he could talk freely about strategy. "It points to a bigger problem that extends across the Potomac. Voters are sending a message to Republicans that they have to get their act together. People want results, not just rhetoric. The results in Virginia are nothing but a reflection of the electorate as a whole nationally."
Rep. Scott W. Taylor (R-Va.) said that his party's acerbic tone and its embrace of polarizing issues drove up Democratic turnout, which hurt the Republicans.
"I support the president, but not blindly," Taylor said. "And when I agree with him, I'll agree with him and I'll defend him. And if I don't agree with him, I'll say it. And there's some things — some of the rhetoric — is very divisive. And I think that contributed to a very high turnout on the Democrat side this time in Virginia. Hopefully, there'll be some people who look in the mirror."
Shaun Kenney, the former executive director of Virginia's Republican Party, said that the GOP needs to come to terms with the reality that the commonwealth is "more of a Northeastern state than a Southern state."
"You can't wrap yourself in a Confederate flag and win an election in Virginia. Racism isn't cool — try that," Kenney said. "The Republican Party has rested on its laurels, confident of the success but not explaining how it's vital to working-class Virginia. We need to get back to the business of government. Be pragmatic about why we want to govern and ignore the catastrophic extremes.
"We can't continue to run on outrage," he said. "Anger is a great accelerant but it's terrible fuel, at least at the state level. Running to the outer fringes isn't a solution for feeding a child or educating a soul."