Buses aren’t known for blazing speeds. But the one that Ed Gillespie found himself under Tuesday night came faster than even the biggest cynic expected.
The former RNC Chairman suffered a brutal defeat to Lt. Governor Ralph Northam in the Virginia gubernatorial election on Tuesday. Only after, however, he was truly pulverized.
Shortly after the loss, President Donald Trump and his top allies began spinning the result as the result of Gillespie being insufficiently obedient to and appreciative of the Trump agenda.
Laura Ingraham, the Trump-adoring cable news host, accused Gillespie of playing “footsie with conservative populism” without fully embracing it. Breitbart, called him a “Republican swamp thing.” A staffer for Corey Stewart, the conservative candidate who barely lost to Gillespie in the GOP primary, told Fox News that, "Gillespie didn't speak to populist issues early enough in the campaign.”
In the coup-de-grace, Trump himself said Gillespie “worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for” just hours after he recorded an election-day robocall for the candidate and tweeted his support for his campaign.
The morning after, the White House sent out a set of talking points written by Kelly Sadler, a special assistant to the president and former columnist at The Washington Times.
"Gillespie’s wavering support for the President resulted in depressed turnout among Republicans, which led to disappointing down-ballot results," read the talking points, a copy of which were obtained by The Daily Beast. "Case-in-point: If the Gillespie campaign embraced the President anywhere, it was in SW Virginia. And, look what happened: SW Virginia significantly over-performed for Republicans relative to 2013. There's a lesson to be learned here."
History may be written by the winners. But the losers on Tuesday night were doing their best attempt at submitting a first draft. And a good chunk of it was revisionism.
Gillespie never appeared alongside Trump. He ducked him often when asked direct questions. But he embraced his political playbook, at least key passages. He called for keeping up Confederate monuments, accused Northam of supporting sanctuary cities, warned of MS-13 gangs rummaging through northern Virginia and even sent out fliers criticizing football players for kneeling during the national anthem. Steve Bannon had insisted that Gillespie was “rallying around the Trump agenda.”
In the process, Gillespie became an emblem for how to run an election as a Republican in the Trump era: a soft veneer with hardball, culture-warrior tactics. Except, it didn’t work.
A number of Never-Trumpers offered their recriminations.
“Trumpism is a cancer that will end your political career and steal your honor if you embrace it,” John Weaver, the top strategist for Governor John Kasich (R-OH) told The Daily Beast. “Republicans should hold dear to their time honored fidelity to the constitution and personally to their soul and turn their backs on Trump for the sake of the country first and the party second. The results in Virginia were the the first step toward redemption for the party, though I fear 2018 will be such a shellacking that it will be the true wake up call.”
But on the other side of the GOP ledger, Trump’s defenders were making their own case—in the process, illustrating how deep the fissures are and how testy a forthcoming civil war may well be.
Sources close to Bannon told The Daily Beast that he had extended multiple offer to Gillespie and his team to campaign and stage rallies together and that Gillespie refused those overtures. Bannon was also frustrated that Gillespie would not come on his Breitbart radio show, nor would he do interviews with Breitbart News.
A Gillespie spokesman did not return a request for comment.
Even as Bannon publicly voiced support for Gillespie and the Republican ticket and predicted Gillespie’s victory, he privately complained about Gillespie’s unwillingness to go “full Trump,” and to actively embrace the president and “economic nationalism.” That, as Bannon and his allies would tell it, is when and how Gillespie lost it.
“Ed Gillespie had no message, was inauthentic, spoke from both sides of his mouth, and at the end of the day, even the deplorables couldn’t save him,” Andrew Surabian, Bannon’s political adviser and former Trump White House official, told The Daily Beast, shortly after Gillespie’s loss on Tuesday evening. “Gillespie campaigned with George W. Bush, [but] ran from President Trump.”