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- An embarrassing election night left Republicans pointing fingers at opposing factions. Trumpers blasted Virginia’s Republican gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie for being a bad candidate. More establishment-aligned figures said the president left Gillespie with an impossible hand.
Republicans suffered brutal losses in Virginia – and the establishment and insurgent right are pointing fingers at who is responsible for what went wrong.
In a race that many believed would be closely contested on election day, Democratic Governor-elect Ralph Northam defeated Republican nominee Ed Gillespie by 9 points. Additionally, Republicans suffered the biggest red-to-blue turnover in the Virginia House since 1899. The election showed the potential for a massive wave election for Democrats in 2018 if the GOP doesn’t manage to rectify whatever went wrong in the Old Dominion.
And Republicans have a number of ideas of what exactly went wrong.
To no surprise, the more establishment line of thought for what went wrong differed from that of the Trumpian hard right.
Bannonites: It’s Gillespie
Trump forces in the party tried tapering the panic by pointing to Virginia’s status as a much more blue-leaning state than places that will be up for grabs in 2018.
But they left no doubt as to who was at fault for the Tuesday disaster – Gillespie. They painted the former Republican National Committee chair as having bungled his message, coming off as inauthentic, and trying to appeal to both sides of major issues – particularly on immigration. They also pointed to other Republican candidates down-ballot, particularly the nominee for lieutenant governor Jill Vogel, and their slightly better performance than Gillespie, as proof the problem in Virginia was not Trump or the Trump message.
Vogel, they said, was much more closely aligned with the president and worked to campaign on a hardcore Trump message, coming off as much more authentic than Gillespie.
“While Jill Vogel was campaigning with Corey Stewart and Bikers for Trump, Ed Gillespie was campaigning with George W. Bush,” Andy Surabian, a top aide to former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and a member of the pro-Trump Great America Alliance group, told Business Insider. “That tells you everything you need to know about why Ed Gillespie’s loss was so big.”
The Bannon wing of the party took issue with the establishment pointing to their message and platform as key in Gillespie’s loss. And they made sure to note that their preference in the race was Stewart, the Trumpian candidate who lost to Gillespie in the primary.
“It’s the McConnell folks who gave us Ed Gillespie,” Surabian said. “They were the ones who were cheering him on when he beat Corey Stewart in the primary. So it’s beyond disingenuous to pin his landslide loss on the Trump movement.”
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Barry Bennett, a former Trump campaign adviser, pointed to the more respectable showings from Vogel and Republican Attorney General nominee John Adams as proof Trump was not to blame.
“Most devastating and revealing was that Gillespie received fewer total votes than both the GOP LG candidate and even fewer than the GOP AG candidate,” he told Business Insider. “When the top of the ticket underperforms the down-ticket races, it’s a sign of a candidate problem. Trump didn’t have anything to do with that.”
Trump himself was quick to distance himself from Gillespie after the loss.
Taking a quick break from his overseas trip to Asia, he tweeted that Gillespie “worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for.”
Establishment: It’s Trump
In turn, more establishment-aligned Republicans – and others in the party who have been skeptical of Trump – made it clear who they thought was at fault for the huge losses.
“Trump stench infiltrated the race,” said Rick Tyler, communications director for Republican Sen. Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign, told Business Insider. Tyler, who doesn’t feel much attachment to the party’s larger establihsment, declined to support Trump’s 2016 campaign bid.
“Eddie couldn’t make the stink go away so he ended up trying to convince people it smelled good,” Tyler told Business Insider.
Gillespie tried to embrace the Trump message in the campaign’s final weeks, but it did not work. Whether it was because of the message itself or, as Trump’s biggest backers point to, Gillespie’s lack of authenticity, is not known, though Kyle Kondik, an expert with the University of Virginia Center for Politics, told Business Insider that Gillespie and Republicans “struggled the most in the places where Trump was the biggest drag.”
As a result, Tyler said candidates should do one thing in the 2018 campaign.
“Dump Trump,” he said.
Josh Holmes, former chief of staff for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, pointed to the national mood as a reason for Gillespie’s inability to finish closer to Northam.
“There’s only so much that a guy like Ed Gillespie can do,” he said. “On paper, he probably has a better suburban sprawl than most Republicans. The problem that he had and that they had down-ballot is that national current is running against them in a pretty significant way. And the issue wasn’t that they didn’t talk about cultural issues enough.”
He criticized the notion that some have presented in the aftermath of Trump’s surprising 2016 victory “that as long as you’re talking about divisive social and racial issues, that somehow that benefits the Republican Party.”
“That, as we saw last night, is an absolute prescription for disaster,” he said. “This Bannon view of the world I think is demonstrably and now proven to be untrue.”
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It wasn’t in the pro-Trump areas that Gillespie found himself coming up short, Holmes added.
Responding to the Bannonites who said the problem in Virginia was the messenger and not the message itself, Holmes said “you’d have to accept that Loudoun and Fairfax Counties were responsive to monuments and immigration policies.”
“And if you know anything about those two counties, they are not,” he continued. “They are suburban, economic, center-right voters, and the idea that they wake up every day and are concerned about whether the monument of Gen. Lee is still standing is a total fantasy.”
Reed Galen, deputy campaign manager for Republican Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential bid, told Business Insider that Tuesday should cause Republicans to “take a whole bunch of lessons,” but “they won’t.”
“With President Trump as the leader of the party, the GOP is beholden to his whims,” he said. “Congress is now facing the idea they won’t have anything to show voters a year from now. If we know that healthcare was the number one issue in Virginia, and we learn from the Maine initiative on Medicaid expansion, Republicans are looking pretty thin. Their tax plan, regardless of reality, has already been shaped as a giveaway to the rich – that won’t help with voters, either.”
He added: “Everything went wrong for Republicans last night.”
But while Galen said the tax bill could be a lost cause with voters Republicans need to win back, others are certain that a win on the tax bill is exactly what the party needs. As one House GOP strategist told Business Insider, Tuesday “showed us Democrats are energized,” and that “makes passing key legislation such as tax reform all the more important.”
Terry Sullivan, campaign manager for Republican Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential bid, told Business Insider that it was clear to him Gillespie and Virginia Republicans got crushed because of a “toxic political environment” that is the “only thing that can explain” such a “strong prevailing wind against Republicans.”
“Yesterday was absolutely all about the terrible national political environment Republicans face,” he said. “Ed Gillespie was a good candidate who ran a good race against Northam, who even the Democrats admit was a terrible candidate. There is nothing on the ground that could explain the huge loss. And for Republicans to lose (at least 15 Virginia House) seats – Paul Ryan should be losing sleep over this.”
Sullivan laid out the grim realities for congressional Republicans headed into 2018.
“Perhaps the single best thing that Congressional Republicans can do to prepare for the midterms is pray that Donald Trump’s Twitter account gets deleted again,” he said. “And this time, permanently.”