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Evan McMullin: Ed Gillespie transformed for the worse in Virginia race

Tuesday, Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of Democratic Virginia Lt. Governor Ralph Northam, and in doing so underperformed President Trump, who lost the state to Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonCornyn spox: Neera Tanden has 'no chance' of being confirmed as Biden's OMB pick Groups seek to get Black vote out for Democrats in Georgia runoffs Biden's political position is tougher than Trump's MORE by 5 percentage points in 2016. Given Gillespie’s fearmongering, imitation-Trump campaign, this was a good outcome for Virginia, the nation and, in the long-run, the GOP.

As chairman of the Republican National Committee and the Republican State Leadership Committee in years past, Gillespie had a forward-looking vision for the GOP, and the nation. He knew that for the party to thrive, it needed to broaden its base by attracting the support of voters of color. At the RNC, he led a $10 million program to reach Hispanics and tried to do the same with other minorities.

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With the support of efforts like these in 2004, George W. Bush won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote — a lot for a Republican — and the presidency again, which he used as a platform to bridge racial and ethnic divisions in America, especially after 9/11, when it mattered most. This was party of Lincoln, Bush and the Gillespie of that time.

Of course, times have changed since then. Our Republican president now stokes fear of Hispanics and Muslims, while defending the “good people” who march alongside neo-Nazis chanting “Jews will not replace us!” and in defense of “our heritage,” a modern white-supremacist dog whistle.

It’s no longer fashionable to advocate for racial inclusion and equality in even some mainstream Republican circles. In others, it never was. Party leaders have long understood that some elements of the base harbored ideas that were, shall we say, incompatible with the self-evident equality of humankind. But, those dark corners of the GOP kept their silence for the most part because of leaders like President Bush and Gillespie, whose inclusive message carried with it the power of compassion and truth.

In an era of upended industries and stagnant wages, however, it’s much easier to sell fear than solutions, especially as your party’s largely homogeneous base is ever shrinking in a diversifying nation. President Trump deftly understood this vulnerability within the party and exploited it in 2016.

Though it was unlikely his first choice in strategies, Gillespie sadly borrowed from the same playbook.

It was a stark departure from the Gillespie who once criticized the GOP’s gubernatorial nominee after he alienated Latino voters in an anti-illegal immigration ad campaign. But if we’ve learned anything in the past two years, political expediency can drive power-craving politicians to do ugly things.

Gillespie’s television ads stoking fear of Latino immigrants by associating them with the gang MS-13, even though Virginia has one of the lowest violent crime rates in the nation, was one such thing. Another was his ad in which he drew a clear distinction between his opponent’s desire to remove Confederate statues and his own plan to keep them at a time when white supremacists are fighting for the same.

Gillespie wasn’t the only one to run race-bating ads; so did an outside group supporting Northam. But Gillespie’s campaign made his.

In response to such criticism, Gillespie directed people to his policies, which were detailed on his website and indeed more grounded in America’s foundational ideals.

But those policies were not the message Gillespie spent millions of dollars to broadcast to millions of Virginians. That message was the unmistakable bile of nativism and fear. At what point does a candidate’s demagoguery become his identity and that of a party or a nation?

Unlike President Trump, Gillespie didn’t come from outside to hijack the party and turn it to anger and isolation. Rather, he’s one of the party’s chosen sons and so his rhetoric does even more to normalize the very diseases within the party that are eating alive its vital organs.

In the era of Trump, some so-called conservative commentators have accepted Stephen Bannon’s new vision for a right-wing movement supported by populism, nationalism and conservatism. They saw Gillespie’s stitching together of all of these groups as what’s needed these days to win elections as a Republican. They were wrong in this case, though they might be right in others, at least in the short-term.

But if this is the price of winning, what is winning worth? What is it worth to the party, to Virginia, and to the nation? Many Republican Party insiders still look upon Gillespie fondly given his honorable history, but this is precisely why his fearmongering and stoking of prejudice was so damaging.

This is no ordinary moment in our history. We are more divided now than in decades. New technologies are enriching our lives while leaving us vulnerable to foreign adversaries’ efforts to weaken us by turning us against each other.

This is a moment in which we and our leaders must boldly oppose the dangerous and false promises of fear and nationalism, which have consistently harmed nations that embrace them.

Even in loss, Gillespie’s campaign made it more difficult for the party to become a champion for equality and liberty, and no one in America should be happy about that.

He had it right the first time. The party cannot thrive on a platform of anger, fear and isolation. Nor can it lead in a diverse nation and increasingly dynamic world with such a philosophy.

I don’t know when enough of the party will awaken to this reality, or if it ever will. I hope soon. In the meantime, we the people must follow Virginia’s example and defeat the politics of fear and division wherever they rise.

Evan McMullin is a former CIA operative and the co-founder of Stand Up Republic. In 2016 he was an Independent presidential candidate. Follow him on Twitter at @Evan_McMullin.