There is no more egregious hack in American politics than Ed Gillespie. Confidant of Dick Cheney and Karl Rove, champion of neoconservatism and the rush to war in Iraq, corporate shill and crony-capitalist fixer, Gillespie doesn’t just swim in the DC swamp; he used to tend it as chair of the Republican National Committee under President George W. Bush. The wave of antiestablishment anger that gave Donald Trump control of the GOP in 2016 was supposed to drain the Gillespies out of American politics. But here we are in 2017, and the smarmiest of Republican swamp creatures has repositioned himself as the president’s essential candidate.
With the November 7 off-year elections approaching, Gillespie has mounted a campaign for governor of Virginia that provides a template for the formal transformation of the Republican Party he once ran into the party of Trump. It’s a practical matter—for both men. Gillespie needs a big showing by Trump’s base to have a chance of prevailing in a relatively low-turnout election in a state where Democrats have been on a winning streak in recent years. And Trump needs a Gillespie win to prove that he is not so politically toxic as he seems and, even more important, to show establishment Republicans the value of making strange bedfellows (on Capitol Hill and on the campaign trail) with this egomaniacal president.
If Gillespie upsets Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam in November—the Democrat currently leads the race, but polls suggest the finish could be close—then Trump will get some bragging rights and a new lease on life going into next year’s congressional and state races. On the other hand, if Gillespie fails in his attempt to fuse establishment conservatism with the ugliest expressions of Trumpism, then the chaos that the Republican Party has experienced since the billionaire populist elbowed his way into its leadership will only grow—and progressive Democrats will be able to make a case for a go-big strategy that seeks to disempower not just Trump but a shambolic GOP.
The stakes are high in Virginia because this fall’s races don’t offer much encouragement for a president whose obsession with election results invariably gets the better of him. Trump—who has yet to get over losing the popular vote by 2.9 million in 2016—failed in September to convince Alabama Republicans to back his pick for the US Senate seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. And now he faces the embarrassing prospect of returning to the state in December to promote GOP nominee Roy Moore, the lawless judicial activist who the president suggested just weeks ago was too extreme even for the Deep South.
Trump could really use some good political news, but he won’t find many bright spots in the multistate voting on November 7. That day’s other gubernatorial contest is in New Jersey, where polls indicate that wealthy Democrat Phil Murphy will replace New Jersey’s Chris Christie, who is leaving office as an epically unpopular Republican. Kim Guadagno, Christie’s lieutenant governor, is running to replace him, but she’s such a reactionary that Murphy calls her “Trump before Trump was Trump.” The Democrat has run a progressive-leaning campaign that focuses on hiking support for education and embracing diversity—countering Guadagno’s anti-immigrant rhetoric with a declaration that “if need be, we will be not just a sanctuary city but a sanctuary state.”
There’s little for Trump to get excited about at the municipal level, either. Mayors who have aggressively opposed the administration, like New York’s Bill de Blasio, are running strong in reelection contests. Where Democratic mayors face serious competition, as in Minneapolis and Boston, the challengers are coming from the left in a year that has already seen breakthrough victories by young progressives like Chokwe Antar Lumumba in Jackson, Mississippi (where he has promised to forge “the most radical city on the planet”), and Randall Woodfin in Birmingham, Alabama (where the campaign finished with a robocall from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders that hailed Woodfin’s reform agenda). The voting on November 7 could bring more progressive wins in Atlanta and Seattle, as could a November 14 contest in Albuquerque and a November 18 runoff in New Orleans. And as an indicator of the appeal of progressive stances on crucial issues, a number of jurisdictions are poised to elect district attorneys who are aligned against Trump and in favor of immigrant rights, voting rights, and criminal-justice reform, including veteran civil-rights lawyer Larry Krasner in Philadelphia and mass-incarceration critic Eric Gonzalez in Brooklyn.
So Virginia looms large for Trump and for Gillespie, who is scrambling not just to win the governorship but to keep the Legislature in Republican hands. If the Trumped-up GOP can prevail in a highly competitive bellwether state, the theory goes, then battered Republicans will have something to spin.
Gillespie’s bid is defined by its desperation and its cynicism. In moderate regions of Virginia, he neglects to mention that he has been repeatedly endorsed by the president—or that Trump strategist and political fixer Steve Bannon is hustling to get far-right Republicans on board. In conservative counties, however, Gillespie campaigns with Vice President Mike Pence as a Trump Republican. And he’s borrowing page after page from the Trump-Bannon playbook: The candidate’s ads mirror dishonest presidential tweets suggesting that because Northam has supported sanctuary cities, he is “fighting for the violent MS-13 killer gangs.” Gillespie’s commercials—which hark back to the notorious Willie Horton ad in 1988—intersperse images of Northam with Salvadoran gang members and flash the words of MS-13’s motto (“Kill, Rape, Control”) on the screen.
When the debate turns to the extremist violence in Charlottesville—where neo-Nazis and “neo-Confederates” terrorized the historic Virginia city after marching in defense of Confederate statues—Gillespie has positioned himself as a full-on Trump- lican. While Northam says the statues belong in museums and focuses attention on structural racism, the Republican announces that “I’ve remained firm in opposing the removal of historical statues across our Commonwealth” and fails to condemn Trump’s assertion that “very fine people” marched with the neo-Nazis. Reviewing Gillespie’s approach, conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin wrote: “This is as repulsive as it is predictable.” In order to “keep up with Trump Republicans,” Rubin concluded, “Gillespie is making himself into a political Neanderthal” in the eyes of swing voters.
That’s true. But elections are less about swing voters than a revved-up base—and Gillespie is enough of a hack to know that Neanderthal messaging is what Trump’s base demands. What remains to be seen is whether Virginia, which rejected Trump in 2016, will this year reject the ugly Trumpism that Ed Gillespie has embraced.