Trump just made a bad night for Republicans much worse for himself
Ed Gillespie made a bet.
By embracing the political priorities of President Trump, he figured, he could help bolster enthusiasm from Trump-supporting voters who had nearly blocked his nomination to be the Republican nominee for governor in Virginia. Those voters had apparently preferred Corey A. Stewart, a candidate who had internalized Trump’s politics in a way that Gillespie hadn’t. So, as Election Day approached, Gillespie ran ads highlighting immigration, “sanctuary cities” and gang violence, despite the fact that crime is much lower in Virginia than in most of the rest of the country.
It was a gamble, but polling suggested it might be working. His opponent, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, saw his lead over Gillespie erode over the past few weeks. Trump weighed in for Gillespie in a series of tweets and with automated Election Day phone calls encouraging turnout.
[email protected] will totally turn around the high crime and poor economic performance of VA. MS-13 and crime will be gone. Vote today, ASAP!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 7, 2017
On Tuesday night, the bottom fell out. Largely on the strength of an unexpected surge in turnout, Northam won easily. Expected to prevail by a bit over three points, he’ll end up with a victory of at least twice that size. After a close loss in a Senate race in 2014, Gillespie lost again, this time by much more.
Trump wasted no time in distancing himself from Gillespie, enjoying the spaciousness of his now-280-character tweets.
Ed Gillespie worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for. Don’t forget, Republicans won 4 out of 4 House seats, and with the economy doing record numbers, we will continue to win, even bigger than before!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 8, 2017
This was not a wise tweet.
We’ve noted before that Trump has an insurance premium against any calls for his impeachment. His popularity with Republicans has slipped since the beginning of his presidency, but he’s still very popular with them, particularly more conservative members of his party. (Per Gallup, more than 9 in 10 conservative Republicans approve of Trump.) Because Republican Party primaries see an overrepresentation of conservatives, that meant that Republicans eager to win reelection to Congress were less likely to turn on the president.
What happened after those primaries, though, was anyone’s guess. Tuesday night offered some sense of what that might be.
Trump’s tweet distancing himself from Gillespie sugarcoats the election in a way that may make Trump feel better but probably isn’t fooling anyone on Capitol Hill. His claim that the GOP won four of four federal races misses a few important points. The first is that those races were in Republican-held districts. The second is that the Democrats saw big gains in most of those races relative to past elections. The third is that the figure is actually four of five; Trump likes to ignore a race in California won by the Democrats.
But it also does something very dangerous for Trump right now. It shows, yet again, that he isn’t loyal to his political partners.
We’ve seen this before. When Trump backed the House effort to repeal and replace Obamacare (having no plan of his own), he responded to its passage by declaring the bill to be “mean” — as though he hadn’t previously claimed it was nearly without flaws. (It was health care, not immigration, that was the big issue in Virginia, according to exit polls. Northam won among voters concerned about health care by a more than 3-to-1 margin.) Even before Election Day in Alabama earlier this year, Trump began to distance himself from his preferred candidate Republican Senate primary, Luther Strange, hinting that he had perhaps made a mistake — a shift that was certainly informed by polls showing a likely Strange loss. When that happened, Trump deleted some of his tweets of endorsement.
Strange’s campaign, unlike Gillespie’s, didn’t embrace Trumpist politics such as the threat of the gang MS-13. He tried to win as a more typical establishment conservative, to no avail. Gillespie tried to more directly embrace Trump politics — and lost badly. And then saw Trump turn on him.
Think of the message that Trump has sent to Republicans. Stand with him on policy and have him bad-mouth what you passed. Embrace his endorsement and see a loss followed by Trump playing down his support. Embrace his endorsement and his politics, and see a loss followed by actual criticism. These are all one-offs — but politics generally suffers from a small sample size from which to draw conclusions, and no one spends more time trying to draw conclusions than politicians.