A Republican is now the frontrunner to be the next governor of Virginia, a state many thought was turning into a solid blue state.
Not only is it a Republican with a strong likelihood of winning, it’s a Republican running as a Trumpist who may be the next governor.
And that Trumpist is the unlikeliest of people to be one: long-time GOP establishment guy Ed Gillespie.
While Gillespie doesn’t display the bluster and populist touch of Donald Trump, his campaign message as of late has centered around getting tough on illegal immigration and MS-13 — issues more associated with populist insurgents than establishment suits. (RELATED: WaPo’s Fact Check On Gillespie’s MS-13 Claims Accidentally Proved His Point)
He is also advertising his strong opposition to tearing down Confederate statues — a big issue in Virginia that most Republican insiders wold rather avoid.
Just a few months ago, it would have been unthinkable for Gillespie, a former RNC chairman, to be running such a campaign in a state Hillary Clinton won.
Gillespie previously ran for state-wide office in 2014 against Sen. Mark Warner and lost. His agenda at the time was squishy, middle-of-the-road stuff and totally devoted to the interests of the business class.
Just tax cuts and regulation reforms. Nothing about immigration and certainly no controversial stances on the cultural war.
In fact, Gillespie was on record at the time supporting the Gang of Eight amnesty, claiming it was good for business.
Now he’s a culture warrior promising to eliminate illegal immigrant street gangs and defend Virginia’s heritage.
A significant reason Gillespie is campaigning in a Trumpian manner is due to his primary opponent, Corey Stewart.
Stewart was an obvious Trumpist. He had a penchant for making provocative statements and liked to mock his opponent as “Establishment Ed.” He was a state chairman for the Trump campaign and has a long record of tough stances against illegal immigration as chairman-at-large for Prince William County.
Stewart’s main issues in the primary were immigration and Confederate statues. The last one earned him heaps of scorn from the press but it is likely the reason he nearly became the nominee — he lost to Gillespie by a percentage point.
Unlike Trump’s rivals in the presidential primary who attacked the eventual nominee as a racist and grandstanded as “principled conservatives,” Gillespie adopted most of Stewart’s campaign agenda. He won, unlike Trump’s Republican foes.
The nominee has surprisingly shown no sign of moderation in pivoting to the general election. Here’s some of his recent ads, for instance:
The MS-13 ad drew numerous accusations of racism from the press, because apparently only white supremacists want to crack down on a murderous street gang plaguing numerous Virginia communities.
The second ad on statues stands on the assumption that voters support keeping the monuments and makes his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, out to be a menace for wanting to take them down.
These are the issues that a business first Republican like Ed Gillespie thinks will win him the election, and they aren’t cutting the deficit.
Trump himself acknowledged the core appeal of the GOP gubernatorial candidate in a tweet Thursday.
Ed Gillespie will be a great Governor of Virginia. His opponent doesn’t even show up to meetings/work, and will be VERY weak on crime!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 26, 2017
Many commentators saw Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake’s resignation as the event that demonstrated the GOP was now Trump’s party. Gillespie’s campaign is a more accurate indication of that fact. (RELATED: Jilted Never Trumpers Want You To Care They’re Losing)
The least Trumpian, most establishment-friendly candidate running as a populist-nationalist shows the electoral power of Trumpism and how the old powers of the party have to radically adjust.
Not only does the Republican base respond better to that message than that of Jeff Flake, so do independent voters in the general election.
Gillespie winning the governor’s race would send a clear message that there is no real civil war in the GOP — Trump’s side won it already. It also tells Republican office seekers that the culture war and populist issues make for better election rhertoric than the arcane fiscal issues favored by people like Sen. Flake.
Stewart, Gillespie’s primary foe, is already the comfortable frontrunner to become the Republican challenger against Sen. Tim Kaine next year, and he will be running on the same issues that nearly made him the nominee for governor. (RELATED: Meet The Republican Running Against Tim Kaine)
Virginia is not the only state where Trumpists are taking the lead in Republican politics. The case is the same in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Arizona. The only two Trump-criticizing Republican senators up for re-election have chosen to bow out instead of facing their constituents.
Many disaffected conservatives hoped Trumpism would remain an aberration confined to the Oval Office while the GOP carried on as usual. The elections are showing a different story, one where populist-nationalism is triumphing over stale fiscal conservatism and transforming the party.
Gillespie lost in a GOP wave year as a business first Republican. He may win in a year of liberal rage as a reluctant Trumpist.
There’s no better sign of an ideology’s political viability than victory.