Don’t write Trumpism’s obituary just yet
President Donald Trump sent a clear message when he tweeted about Ed Gillespie's loss after the Virginia governor's race: I reserve the right to throw any GOP candidate who doesn't bear-hug me under the bus.
"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!” tweeted Trump.
“Lessons from off-year elections can be overdrawn, but the Virginia race strongly suggests that Republicans running in swing states will have to choose a side rather than try to straddle an uncomfortable line. Trump's blunt force, all-or-nothing approach has worked in deeply conservative areas, but Republicans will have trouble replicating that in certain states in the midterms next year when faced with a diverse, highly educated electorate like the one in Virginia,” observed New York Times political reporter Michael Tackett.
The results in Virginia would seem to suggest that not fully embracing Trump while echoing his nationalist, culture-warrior messaging didn't exactly work. But as Tackett notes, we're talking about one race. We're also talking about the movement of a few points in a tough state for Trump and Trumpism. Trump lost Virginia by five points last year, and Gillespie lost by nine points Tuesday. While other swing states trended toward Trump, Virginia continued its long-running path away from the GOP.
Second, the last time there was a big race featuring a highly educated electorate and a GOP candidate who conspicuously kept Trump at arm's length, it was Georgia special election candidate Karen Handel. She won, even beating Trump's margin in the well-to-do Atlanta suburbs by a few points.
No two races are created equal, but Georgia's 6th District is demographically similar to Virginia. It's 62 percent white, compared to Virginia's 63 percent. Its median income ranks toward the top nationwide, as does Virginia's. It has highly educated suburbs, and Virginia has lots of those.
The difference, of course, is that Georgia's 6th was much more GOP-leaning before Trump came along, having delivered wide margins for previous Republicans who ran there. Handel may have slightly bettered Trump's numbers, but she far underperformed previous GOP candidates there.
Still, the point is that we’re talking about movement on the margins here, relative to 2016. Gillespie did a few points worse than Trump with his "Trumpism without Trump" message, while Handel did slightly better while not fully embracing Trump.
The other data point that's worth emphasizing here is that Gillespie didn't have a turnout problem. In fact, the 1.18 million votes he received is 17 percent more than 2013 GOP nominee Ken Cuccinelli received. The problem for Gillespie was that Democratic turnout was up even more. It appears Gillespie's choice not to fully embrace Trump turned off would-be voters who support Trump.
There is certainly evidence to suggest "Trumpism without Trump" isn't the best electoral strategy, but it's still not a totally compelling case. And Republicans in swing areas who have been gingerly dancing around Trump's tweets and controversies will probably still feel the need to do so. This strategy, after all, has never really been one of choice.
Aaron Blake is senior political reporter for The Fix, a Washington Post political blog site.
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