Democrats made a clean sweep of Virginia’s statewide offices Tuesday. Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie received significantly fewer votes than the rest of his party’s statewide ticket that showed a closer affinity with President Donald Trump’s agenda.
While so-called “NeverTrump” Republicans were quick to blame the President’s unpopularity or simply the unviability of populist-nationalism in general for the defeat of one-time GOP establishment favorite Gillespie, the numbers belay such a simple explanation.
With virtually all votes counted Tuesday night, Republican Lt. Gov. candidate Jill Vogel received approximately 50,000 more votes than Gillespie. Attorney general candidate John D. Adams got about 45,000 more than Gillespie. Both lost to their Democrat opponents, Justin Fairfax and Mark Herring, respectively.
Contrary to the #NeverTrump narrative – which blamed Gillespie’s shortfall, in part, on his late turn towards populism with ads referencing the fight against illegal immigration and the preservation of Virginia’s Confederate history – if anything, the two better-faring statewide Republicans more warmly embraced Trumpism. Gillespie was rarely seen as a hard-right populist, serving under John Kaisch and George W. Bush in his political tutelage, before briefly becoming chairman of the Republican National Committee. He, despite running a more hardline campaign in the waning days of his quest for the Virginia governorship, ran as a decided anti-populist as recently as this summer, when he took on Prince William County Supervisor Corey Stewart for the nomination.
That earned him no favors from the left or the #NeverTrump right. Both united to call the ex-Bush staffer a “white nationalist,” or worse.
Trump, in the aftermath of Tuesday’s sweeping win by now-Governor-elect Ralph Northam, distanced himself from Gillespie:
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
Jill Vogel, by contrast, ran as a populist-nationalist from the very beginning, enthusiastically trumpeting the Trump agenda in the campaign. Adams, too, ran anything but a squishy GOP establishment-type campaign. Both appeared with arch-Virginia Trumpist and now-2018 U.S. Senate candidate Stewart, who lost narrowly to Gillespie in June’s primary, at a Virginia Beach rally with Bikers for Trump less than two weeks before election day.
Stewart, who, perhaps more than any Virginia politician, has consistently tacked to the populist-nationalist line, called Tuesday’s Democratic landslide “a humiliating rejection of the failed Bush wing of the Republican Party” in a statement after the result became clear.
“We were told Virginia needed a moderate to win. So we nominated one, but after listening to the swamp’s consultant class, Virginia’s Republicans have gone from losing by 2.5 points to 9 points,” Stewart said.
That widened margin by which Gillespie lost compared to Trump last year, coupled with the better performance of America First candidates like Vogel, suggests simple explanations of Tuesday’s wave in Virginia rooted in the toxicity of Trump or populist-nationalist politics writ large are inadequate.