Ahead of Tuesday's gubernatorial election in Virginia, Breitbart News hailed Republican nominee Ed Gillespie as a “culture warrior” who would defend Confederate monuments.
“I do believe that Gillespie's going to pull this thing out,” Breitbart Chairman Stephen K. Bannon predicted Saturday.
President Trump likewise projected confidence when he tweeted in late October that “Ed Gillespie will be a great governor of Virginia.” On Election Day, Trump urged voters to turn out for Gillespie, who “will totally turn around the high crime and poor economic performance” of the state.
But when it became clear that Gillespie had lost to Democrat Ralph Northam (the Associated Press called the race at 8:12 p.m. on Tuesday), the president and his former chief strategist raced to distance themselves from the failed candidate they had previously boosted.
In Seoul, Trump squeezed in time for a tweet, 20 minutes before he was scheduled to deliver a speech to the South Korean National Assembly.
Ed Gillespie worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for. Don’t forget, Republicans won 4 out of 4 House seats, and with the economy doing record numbers, we will continue to win, even bigger than before!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 8, 2017
Breitbart turned on Gillespie just as quickly, describing him in a splashy homepage headline as a “REPUBLICAN SWAMP THING.”
Efforts to avoid blame for a loss are typical in politics. There is certainly a lot of finger pointing in the current book tours by Hillary Clinton and former Democratic National Committee chief Donna Brazile.
Yet Trump and Bannon seem particularly sensitive to the stench of defeat because winning — perhaps even more than policy — is so central to their brands.
“I am a winner,” Trump declared early in his campaign for the White House. “If I am elected, I will make this country a total winner.”
As president, Trump has staked part of his winning image on an ability to propel candidates for lower offices to victory. He took credit when Republicans enjoyed a string of special election wins earlier this year. And he has been quick to spin subsequent losses as a positive for himself.
When Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.) lost a primary runoff in September, Trump emphasized in a post-election tweet that the incumbent had “started way back”; Trump had tweeted earlier in the day that Strange had “been shooting up in the Alabama polls since my endorsement.”
The implication was that Strange was competitive only because of a Trump bump.
Now, the president's take on the Virginia governor's race is that Gillespie lost because he didn't align himself more closely with Trump.
Meanwhile, Bannon has been working hard since leaving the White House to cultivate a reputation for influencing races.
When Bannon's preferred candidate, Roy Moore, won the Alabama runoff over Strange, a Breitbart report asserted that the “result proved the enduring power and reach of Breitbart News. Bannon and Breitbart are no longer just the most hated names inside the Beltway. Now, they are also the most feared.”
For Trump and Bannon, it is important that Gillespie's defeat not be viewed as a rejection of their ideologies or an indication that they don't hold much sway over Republican voters.