Republicans eager to win or retain elected office might do well to keep their distance from the president.
Election results coming in from Tuesday’s gubernatorial elections (Nov. 8) show that Democrat Ralph Northam, a doctor and army veteran, won the Virginia race, defeating the candidate heavily backed by Trump, Republican Ed Gillespie, by a nine percentage-point margin.
The race’s outcome, coming after a state primary in which the Trump-endorsed candidate was also rejected, suggests that Republican party candidates may need to think carefully about how exactly to associate themselves with Trump during the 2018 midterm elections.
Gillespie, a lobbyist and former congressional aide, ran on a campaign platform that merged establishment Republican policy with brash campaign tactics that mirrored those of the Trump presidential campaign. Television ads supporting Gillespie criticized Northam’s support for sanctuary cities, which limit cooperation with federal immigration enforcement policies, with references to MS-13, a US gang with members originating from El Salvador. He also supported leaving Confederate statues up in the state, arguing that removing them would be a waste of tax dollars. Gillespie did, however, directly criticize the white nationalist protestors in Charlottesville.
Throughout the campaign, Trump remained a vocal proponent of Gillespie, frequently tweeting his support.
Gillespie, meanwhile, distanced himself publicly from president Trump. But he did appear at a rally with vice president Mike Pence.
On Twitter, after the election results came in, Trump suggested the takeaway from Gillespie’s loss was that the candidate was too ambivalent about him:
Gillespie’s loss follows the defeat of Luther Strange in the Alabama Republican Senate primary to Roy Moore, a former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. Strange, like Gillespie, received support from Trump on Twitter, and even appeared with the president at a rally. Unlike Gillespie’s opponent though, Moore was plenty Trump-ian despite not receiving Trump’s support initially. A devout Christian, he has spoken out against Minnesota congressman Keith Ellison for his Muslim faith, and during his time as a state judge, famously refused orders to remove a statue of the Ten Commandments he placed in his courtroom.
After Strange’s defeat, Trump deleted his tweets supporting Strange and congratulated Moore.
The dual defeat of Strange and Gillespie, two of Trump’s preferred candidates, could prompt Republican candidates to distance themselves from Trump as the 2018 mid-term elections approach. In particular, Gillespie’s failure suggests that voters won’t buy a mixture of Trump-esque populist rhetoric with establishment conservative policies. But Moore’s victory, earned without Trump’s support, suggests that firebrand conservative politicians stand a chance at the polls, as long as voter demographics work in their favor.
Trump’s populism will likely live on where it can, with or without Trump.