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.”