ARLINGTON, Va. — The breakfasters at Bob and Edith’s Diner are too preoccupied with their tasty bacon and eggs to notice the Democratic gubernatorial candidate. Or perhaps, like all Americans who are more sensitive than oysters, they are in the throes of political exhaustion and are trying to ignore this year’s only competitive gubernatorial race. In any case, they seem unaware that the mild-mannered pediatric neurologist in one of the booths — he is wearing a bourgeois disguise: gray suit, maroon tie — supposedly is “fighting for the violent MS-13 killer gangs” involving many Central American immigrants. The U.S. president says so, as does the gubernatorial candidate of his party.
In two weeks, Virginia will have America’s most consequential election since 50 weeks ago. Today’s campaign dramatizes the difficult calculation confronting people who want the Republican Party restored as a vehicle for conservatism but who know that this requires expunging the political style — exuberantly fact-free accusations and screeds — exemplified by the “MS-13” tweet.
Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam won the Democratic nomination by handily defeating (by 10 points) a darling of the Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren (both endorsed the darling) tendency in the Democratic primary, which attracted 177,000 more voters than the Republican primary did. And the Republican candidate, Ed Gillespie, has a problem residing across the Potomac.
In 2014, Gillespie — former counselor to President George W. Bush, former Republican National Committee chair, adviser to Mitt Romney’s campaign, lobbyist extraordinaire — came within a whisker of defeating an incumbent U.S. senator, Mark Warner. This year, however, Gillespie barely defeated a full-throated Trumpian in the Republican primary. Gillespie is intelligent, temperate, experienced and happiest when talking about government policies. These attributes are, in the incandescent eyes of his party’s now-Trumpian base, defects of swamp creatures. So, he is gingerly tiptoeing across the treacherous terrain of Trumpian Republican politics.
His dishonest MS-13 ads featured tattooed dark-skinned men and accused Northam of refusing to crack down on “sanctuary cities,” of which Virginia has none.
Recently, however, Gillespie has been stressing economic issues while Northam has been saturating liberal Northern Virginia with ads featuring women who are cross because Gillespie is pro-life. Never mind that governors have been almost irrelevant to abortion policy since courts took control of it two generations ago. If Gillespie enlists Trump to campaign for him, he will embrace a political style that entails a political substance suited to it. If he does not, Trump’s supporters will notice and accuse him of having standards, yet another swampish vice — the stigmata of elitism.
A Gillespie win on Nov. 7 would be a double victory for Republicans. They would control another swing-state’s governor’s mansion in 2020. And it might send the Sanders/Warren true believers careening off on a “We told you so!” rampage, arguing — convincingly only to other believers — that Virginians chose a conservative Republican because Northam, although progressive, was insufficiently so.
So, if Gillespie wins, Republicans elsewhere will conclude that the derangement of their party does not hinder its prospering. If the Democrat wins, many progressives will be secretly as unhappy as the Trumpians who, like those progressives, will argue that their man lost because he was inconsistently and insincerely enthusiastic about his party’s most off-putting faction.
Writes for The Washington Post