A closer-than-ever-imagined race in Virginia’s Republican primary for governor taught the GOP an important lesson Tuesday: Underestimate the mini-Trumps at your own risk.
Ed Gillespie was expected to cruise. He was the epitome of party establishment — a former Republican National Committee chairman — in a state where that still matters. His opponent, Corey Stewart, was a Donald Trump champion in a state Trump lost in last year’s presidential election. Stewart, who rallied around Confederate symbols, was seen as little more than a nuisance, and a minor one at that.
But on a night when the only suspense was supposed to be on the Democratic side, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, the insiders’ favorite, put away progressive darling Tom Perriello easily and early. And Stewart nearly staged the upset of the year. WIth 99 percent of precincts reporting, Gillespie appeared to eke out a razor-thin win of just more than a percentage point. The stunning squeaker immediately changes the political calculus not only headed into Virginia’s general election, but also into next year’s midterm primaries.
“We're going to see this play out all across the nation,” John Weaver, an anti-Trump Republican strategist who works with Ohio Gov. John Kasich, told BuzzFeed News in an email. “Sort of a ‘Night of the Living Dead Mini-Trumps’ version. Look, Stewart would lose 65-35 in VA. Ed is going to have a hard enough time given the ‘president's’ record unpopularity."
Stewart, the chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, became known for what the Washington Post described as a "Confederate-centric bid." Borrowing a page from Trump, he railed against politically correct culture. His provocative nature was an echo of Trump’s and one of the earliest tests of the long-term appeal of such candidates. Gillespie, for his part, was careful not to offend Trump devotees. But he was hardly carrying their torch.
A big showing for Trumpism in Virginia will leave other party operatives rethinking next year’s competitive primaries in congressional and gubernatorial races. Already in states like Ohio, Michigan, and South Carolina (states that Trump won) Republican gubernatorial prospects are aligning themselves with the president in hopes of winning his voters, if not his endorsement. In Ohio, for example, US Rep. Jim Renacci already is campaigning with a message that mimics Trump’s — and with the support of colorful groups such as Bikers for Trump.
Not all establishment candidates are anti-Trump, and not all anti-establishment candidates would qualify as a mini-Trump. But Stewart’s stronger-than-anticipated performance is a reminder that Trump, despite sub-40 approval ratings nationally, remains popular with Republicans, even as investigations into his associates continue to rock Washington.
Another top GOP strategist cast the Virginia results as "horrible news" for those lukewarm toward Trump last year. The strategist singled out two House members in Alabama: Mo Brooks, who once characterized Trump as a "serial" adulterer, and Martha Roby, who pulled her support from Trump after videotape surfaced of him bragging about making aggressive sexual advances on women. She already is facing a 2018 primary challenge from a Trump supporter.
"The president," the source added, "still reigns supreme among primary voters and there is no chance anybody who opposed him last year will have the luxury to forget it."
Republican operative Tim Miller, a leader in last year’s anti-Trump movement, cast the surprising returns as a wake-up call to the GOP establishment.
“The populist, Trumpian message has significant support in swing states and majority support in red states in GOP primaries,” Miller told BuzzFeed News. “A lot of D.C. Republicans didn't learn anything from 2016 and want to put their head in the sand and pretend Trump is an outlier — Stewart nearly pulling off an upset demonstrates once again that is not the case.”