Sweeping losses in Tuesday’s elections have exacerbated a growing rift inside the GOP over whether the party’s candidates should embrace President Donald Trump in next year’s midterms — or make a clean break.
With Trump’s approval ratings cratering in swing states across the country, some senior party strategists are imploring lawmakers to abandon the president. Others argue that shunning Trump and his populist base is simply out of the question and that anything other than a full embrace of the president would spell electoral disaster.
In the Virginia gubernatorial race, Republican Ed Gillespie tried to have it both ways — with disastrous consequences. Gillespie, who privately agonized about the degree to which Trump should be involved in the contest, refused to campaign with the president. But at the same time, he trumpeted Trump’s culture war issues in ads.
White House advisers spent Wednesday combing through the election results and fuming about Gillespie’s have-it-both-ways approach. By keeping Trump at arm’s length, they said, Gillespie squandered an opportunity to motivate conservatives whose support he needed.
“He wouldn’t embrace the president, so the base that came out to vote for the president and that voted for me, didn’t come out,” said Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart, a Trump campaign official who nearly defeated Gillespie in the June GOP primary. “The Trump-Stewart base just didn’t turn out.”
Others, however, said Gillespie — an establishment-minded former Beltway lobbyist who never felt entirely at ease highlighting populist issues — went too far in aligning himself with the president. By vowing to preserve the state’s Confederate monuments and to combat MS-13 gang violence, they argued, the candidate fired up Democrats in the state’s population centers and liberal northern suburbs.
Appearing onstage with the president would have only exacerbated the problem, they said.
“Be yourself and run your own campaign,” said GOP strategist John Weaver, a veteran of presidential campaigns. “Don’t embrace this nationalist approach.”
Trump, he added, “is a tremendous drag in a general election.”
Republicans running down-ballot have long grappled with how to deal with the president. But as Trump’s poll numbers wane and the midterm season grows closer, the debate has taken on greater urgency. While the president’s approval ratings have plummeted in moderate and liberal areas, his core base of supporters has remained steadfast.
The dilemma is expected to be a major topic of discussion next week at the Republican Governors Association annual meeting in Austin, Texas. And top House GOP campaign strategists, trying to preserve their now-tenuous majority, said they wanted to look more deeply into the Virginia results before drawing conclusions.
“It’s quite a predicament,” said Tony Fabrizio, a longtime GOP pollster who worked on the Trump campaign.
“You can’t be the anti-Trump guy in the primary. But you don’t want to be the 100-percent-for-Trump guy in the general,” he added. “When you go to one extreme or the other, that’s when you fall short.”
Gillespie spent months trying to perform a balancing act. He emerged from the June primary deeply frustrated, after Trump supporters nearly powered Stewart to an upset victory. Gillespie vented about his political operation and even considered a staff shakeup. The former national party chairman sketched out several possible paths forward, including a full-on embrace of the president.