Why Democrats Won the Virginia Gubernatorial Race (Other Than the Vote Count)

In his recent piece entitled “Why Ralph Northam Lost the Virginia Gubernatorial Race” Tim Burns argued that the Democratic Party may not have not received the unequivocally positive result that it thought.  Tim argues:

The failure of Gillespie was not that he lost the race himself, but rather that he had to simultaneously appeal to a baseline level of hard right Trump voters, while being a fairly typical conservative. He may have been labeled "Trump-lite" because of this effort, and ultimately lost the race because he was not himself—a moderate business Republican with wide appeal on that basis. While Northam was off running against Donald Trump, Gillespie missed the opportunity to be the moderate pro-business conservative that would have won the race.

Tim makes a good point here.  Just not the one he thinks he’s making.

Many traditional Republicans supported Ed Gillespie because they relished the opportunity to support tax cuts, reductions in entitlement spending, and moderate social conservatism in an important election.  I’m glad they had that opportunity and I happen to be one of those rare liberals who would like to see a responsible conservative party rise from the irradiated waste of the last eight years of Republican politics.  I pour out a little of my morning coffee each time another regular conservative perishes in the inferno.  But I’m more sorry to see some go than I am others.

Ed Gillespie is, by any measure, a classic conservative.  But by Tim’s own account, he ran this campaign as an attempt to straddle the middle ground between supply-side conservatism and the cultural grievance of the party’s Obama years.  Tim states that Gillespie “had to simultaneously appeal to a baseline level of hard right Trump voters.”  He says that the Gillespie campaign “moderated Trump’s rhetoric,” and that they attempted “to borrow some of the past year’s Republican party platform.”  

What he neglects to mention however, is that he attempted to appeal to those voters using some of Trump’s signature issues and that last year’s Republican Party platform was beholden to their nominee’s agenda.  I’ll concede that Gillespie moderated Trump’s rhetoric but that bar is quite low.

Gillespie made the bargain that so many Republicans have made in recent years.  He attempted to employ just enough of Trump’s cultural grievance politics to bring his supporters to the polls without distracting from his standard fare supply side conservatism.  Gillespie’s gamble was that he could invoke Trump in his supporters without tying himself to Trump in everyone else’s eyes.  This gamble completely ignored the impact of national (and even local) context in his election.

Gillespie ran an ad in which he evoked rape, murder, and violent gangs and tied them to Ralph Northam’s unwillingness to outlaw sanctuary cities in Virginia, in spite of the fact that there are no sanctuary cities in the state of Virginia to outlaw.  Gillespie hoped that swing voters and Democrats would forget the numerous times in the last year that Trump gleefully evoked sanctuary cities and MS-13 to justify policy as diverse as police brutality and draconian immigration enforcement.  But he hoped that Trump voters would remember.

I have no idea which gubernatorial candidate was the first to mention Confederate monuments in the official general election campaign, but Gillespie harped on monuments again and again and again (as did Northam, admittedly).  Gillespie hoped that swing voters and Democrats would forget that Trump’s base turned out for his primary opponent based in large part on that issue, that Confederate monuments have provided a convenient rallying point for white nationalists in recent years, and that Trump endorsed Gillespie based on his support for those same monuments.  But he hoped that Trump voters would remember.

Ed Gillespie gambled and lost badly.  More to the point, Democrats won.

For over two years, the Republican Party has engaged in this same bargain.  Avoiding support of Trump – or at least avoiding being tagged for his more outrageous, offensive, and ridiculous statements – while absorbing just enough of his authoritarianism and ethnic grievance to court some of his voters.  Since Trump assumed office, the bargain has started to fail them.  The equilibrium has begun to collapse.  I keep returning to Tim's statement on that point.  In that contention, he is quite right:

The failure of Gillespie was not that he lost the race himself, but rather that he had to simultaneously appeal to a baseline level of hard right Trump voters, while being a fairly typical conservative.

Tim assumes that Gillespie lost because he was caught in an awkward middle between reasonable conservatism and the Trump-hard-right, but he argues further that Democrats only won because they ran an election against Trump.  I wonder, however, if Tim has considered that Gillespie lost because Democrats effectively ran against him.  That they exploited the middle ground he occupied.  That Democrats didn’t run against Trump, but rather against an equivocating Republican who embraced lukewarm versions of Trump’s anti-immigrant fear-mongering, and didn’t embrace the man outright but had little to say even as the man tweeted support and daily ran roughshod over established norms of governance, rule of law, and common decency.

Tim has a point.  I get a knot in the pit of my stomach as I watch the Republican culling.  But if Democrats obliterated the lily-livered, equivocating, Trump-neutral faction in the Republican Party in the Virginia elections, then I have little problem.  Republicans are learning that, by electing Donald Trump to the Presidency, they lost neutrality as an option.  

With every provocation from the White House and value it tramples they lose space to be above the fray.  With every Roy Moore, Kelli Ward, Corey Stewart, and Marsha Blackburn they're shoved closer and closer to the mess they’ve created.  The only other option is to denounce it all and become the men (and women) of conscience and principle they have all, at one time or another, fancied themselves.  

Tim can be correct in that Gillespie’s defeat is a loss for Democrats in the long run if, and only if, Republicans choose not to fix their party.  Democrats are only hurt by forcing Republican politicians to choose between their own principles and outright capitulation to the despicable elements in their party if those Republicans choose the latter.  To Tim’s credit, I’m not exactly brimming with confidence, and for that reason I’ll continue to pour out a little morning coffee for each establishment Republican that bites the dust.  But if they bit, not because their party rejected their principled stand for free markets and tolerance, but because they found performing public service while accommodating the festering grievance in their party unworkable; then I’ll drink the rest and won’t give them a second thought.