After his primary wins, Gillespie goes from underdog to Democratic favorite in Virginia
News reports heralded Ed Gillespie’s Republican victory in Virginia’s gubernatorial primary on Tuesday night as a decisive victory for the party. But Republican consultant David Johnson said the real story from the primary isn’t what the results say about the state of Virginia politics, but rather about Democratic challenger Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, the Democratic front-runner for governor.
Gillespie started the evening with less than a 1-percentage-point lead over Northam, but he ended up winning by roughly 10 points, a margin Johnson says paints Gillespie as a loser.
“Ed Gillespie is a professional troll,” Johnson said. “Just because you’ve run one of the best ads ever doesn’t make you competent.”
“Ed Gillespie got destroyed,” he continued. “The only winner was Ralph Northam.”
It didn’t have to be this way. Gillespie, the Republican National Committee chair, has enjoyed months of hype as a rising star of the GOP. His victories over Mitt Romney in 2012 and Sen. Mark Warner in 2014 helped establish him as a party kingmaker.
But his chances in Tuesday’s primary appeared bleak the moment he entered the race in May. He didn’t have a large enough war chest for the expensive airwaves. His nominee positions were so far to the right that they were seen as unlikely to win in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 3-to-1. Still, Gillespie was saddled with charges that he was the Republican nominee of President Donald Trump. That narrative, a touchstone for his party, helped sink him in the airwaves.
“He is a professional troll who completely ignored his opponent,” Johnson said. “He just bet that if he beat Trump better than Trump that he could keep the Republican Party’s nominated from losing to the Democrat.”
When Gillespie led early in the evening, Johnson said it was his role as an RNC-affiliated consultant to National Republican Senatorial Committee, as well as an unflinching Trump supporter, that made him the perceived threat to Northam.
“I think he is the one that Ed Gillespie is making up a candidate and trying to make a contest against Northam to try to pick up another point of vote,” Johnson said.
Gillespie’s public appearances since June have been accompanied by an additional series of television advertisements highlighting his endorsements from establishment Republicans and conservative media personalities like Fox News hosts Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. Those videos might have been enough to increase Northam’s chances of winning in the fall. Instead, Johnson says, they backfired.
“‘He’s doing everything Donald Trump doesn’t want,” Johnson said. “‘He’s not trying to stay far away from Trump.’ ‘That’s fine. People don’t like that.'”
“That works if there’s no one else in the race to run a parallel,” Johnson continued. “It doesn’t work against Ralph Northam.”
But if Gillespie did, in fact, start Tuesday’s primary with the candidate to beat in Virginia, then things could be looking up for Republicans. Gillespie only needs to break his own recent record for Virginia Republicans to win the fall.
“If Ed Gillespie is going to do what Donald Trump did, he’s going to need to find another bridge to climb across,” Johnson said. “I don’t think that is his purpose in life.”
But that does not mean he won’t win. Republicans still outnumber Democrats 4-to-1 in Virginia. It only takes a few more GOP votes to flip a contest, and in 2016 Trump lost by just 64,000 votes.
Johnson sees a Democratic super-majority vote in the 2020 Senate elections as the big opportunity for Republicans to “reach out” to moderates by running a candidate like Gillespie. And if Democrats hold onto their House seats in Virginia, they could run up the score in 2020.
“Ed Gillespie could have been the champion of doing away with Obamacare,” Johnson said. “And if Republicans allowed Trump to be the champion of breaking up the North American Free Trade Agreement … that would be another opportunity for him.”
In any case, Johnson says the GOP will be in good shape to hold onto the governor’s mansion in 2019.
“This is the crack in the most solid Democratic wall in America,” Johnson said. “There will be one Republican governor in Virginia for the next two years.”