Former RNC chairman Ed Gillespie gave Republican insiders a scare when he barely survived the GOP gubernatorial primary contest in Virginia last month.
Despite polls indicating a strong first-place finish, Gillespie scraped by with a 1.2 percent win over Corey Stewart, a former state chairman to the Trump campaign. Now Washington GOP insiders are worried about Gillespie’s chances in the general election against Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam. Many of them are reportedly pushing Gillespie to take on veterans of the Trump campaign team to win over the rural voters who went for Stewart.
Gillespie entered the race to become Virginia’s next governor as the clear front-runner in the GOP primary. He comes with a serious resume: former Republican National Committee chairman, former counselor to President George W. Bush, a juggernaut fundraising operation, etc. Gillespie has already proven he can do well in Old Dominion. In the 2014 mid-term elections, no poll or pundit had his Senate bid on their radar. On Election Day, however, Gillespie surprised the political world by finishing less than one percentage point behind Sen. Mark Warner, a popular incumbent and former governor of the state.
So this Republican primary was supposed to be a cake walk for Gillespie, right?
This is no doubt a populist phase in the American electorate. The success of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders has proven that. Corey Stewart – the current at-large chairman of the Board of Supervisors of Prince William County – was able to capitalize off populist sentiment and nearly snatched Gillespie’s presumed coronation.
Taking note from the man who successfully won the White House, Stewart earned himself free media attention with strong statements and seemingly strange behavior. He even nicknamed his opponent “Establishment Ed.” Stewart strongly supported the preservation of Confederate monuments in Virginia and he spoke of the ills of illegal immigration – two things Gillespie was timid to cover while on the campaign trail. The result: Stewart finished barely a point behind Gillespie. The mini-Trumper’s performance in the rural center of Virginia nearly rocketed him to victory.
Gillespie shocked the country in 2014 with his near win. This year, he shocked the country yet again – it was just a more disappointing-type of surprise. GOP leaders, now scared that Gillespie’s operation doesn’t have what it takes to defeat Democrat Lt. Gov. Northam, are pushing him to adopt a Trump-like strategy and win over the voters who went for Stewart.
The Washington Post released an in-depth story on the push to go Trump. The day after Gillespie’s poor primary showing, a group of Republicans asked Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s first campaign manager, if he was willing to advise the gubernatorial candidate. Lewandowski was reportedly down to help. However, Gillespie, wanting nothing of it, flatly rejected the offer.
Still, insiders want the Republican gubernatorial nominee to adopt new tactics to win over the Trump-Stewart voters. Other suggestions have been to tap other Trump operatives – some who helped the president win the Rust Belt states that catapulted him to the White House. Likewise, advisers are whispering to Gillespie to get more bombastic on the campaign trail. Gillespie ran a noticeably safe primary campaign. He avoided the subject of Confederate statues; avoided the topic of Donald Trump; and deflected on harsh rhetoric regarding illegal immigration by repeatedly saying he wanted to be a governor of “all Virginians.”
GOP leaders want Gillespie to get tougher on the campaign trail and make a better outreach to the Virginia voters that went to the polls for the president.
The strategy does come with hiccups. Gillespie is not exactly Trump’s biggest fan. Easily placed into the “establishment” column of politicians, Gillespie did not publicly get behind Trump’s candidacy until after he clearly secured the Republican presidential nomination. Gillespie still avoids talking about Trump during his stump speeches.
Also, Virginia is a bona fide swing state (that looks to be turning bluer by the year). No Republican has won statewide office in Old Dominion since 2009. It was the only Southern state to go Hillary’s way in 2016. Trump’s approval rating here sits at a dismal 36 percent. This isn’t exactly the best state to emulate the bombastic Republican president. The strategy can work wonders during a GOP primary, but a general election is a whole other animal.
Gillespie undoubtedly will have to walk a fine line if he wants to be Virginia’s next governor.