Take note, 2018 Republicans: Gillespie lost Virginia in the primary

Take note, 2018 Republicans: Gillespie lost Virginia in the primary
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Contrary to the spin machines that have been working overtime, Tuesday night’s election in Virginia was not a referendum on the president. This race was lost in the primary by a candidate who made the decision early on not to embrace Trump voters — a calculated decision that proved fatal in the general election.

Ed Gillespie is a good, likable guy who was supposed to run away with the Republican nomination in the primary against Corey Stewart, former state chairman of the Trump campaign and Prince William County board of supervisors chairman. Gillespie had statewide name recognition and far less baggage, than the highly controversial Stewart who was fired from his chairman post following an ill-advised protest outside the Republican National Committee.

In the end, Gillespie just barely managed to eke out a victory over Stewart by a razor thin margin. Many Virginia Republicans felt right then that he had no shot in the general election.

Gillespie, in many ways, was trying to take a path to the governor’s mansion that mimicked the path taken by current governor, Terry McAuliffe. Both men were natives of other states, McAuliffe from New York and Gillespie from New Jersey. Both men had been leaders of their parties on the national stage, and both men lost in their first attempt at winning statewide office in Virginia: McAuliffe lost a Democratic primary for governor in 2009, and Gillespie barely lost to Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerFacebook board decision on Trump ban pleases no one Schumer works to balance a divided caucus's demands Senate Intel vows to 'get to the bottom' of 'Havana syndrome' attacks MORE in the 2014 U.S. Senate race.

There is a glaring difference between McAuliffe’s success and Gillespie’s failure that can’t be ignored by Republicans if they want to be successful moving into the midterm elections: McAuliffe ran unopposed for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2009, while Gillespie had a divided GOP base that he needed to unite in order to be successful. It’s really as simple as Politics 101 — you bring your base together so they’re united and motivated to turn out and vote for you.

There were still 2016 presidential primary battle scars the Gillespie campaign needed to heal. Trump won the Virginia primary, narrowly defeating U.S. Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioThe unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her  Crist launches bid for Florida governor, seeking to recapture his old job The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - Trump, Cheney trade jabs MORE (R-Fla.). This brought a whole new wave of voters into the Republican Party, people who were enthusiastic about President Trump and his strong, no nonsense approach.

Politics 101 says you embrace those people and bring them into the fold if you want to consolidate your base, especially given the intensity of the Democratic Party’s base, driven by their contempt toward Trump.  

But that consolidation never happened. It wasn’t even attempted.

The fatal mistake: The Gillespie campaign purposely ignored Stewart and, by extension, his voters.  As a result, many Virginia Trump Republicans had a hard time getting behind a Gillespie candidacy, because they never trusted that he fully supported the president, or cared about their issues.  

While Gillespie did try to voice legitimate concern about their issues after the primary, his dissing them during the primary had poisoned the well, and fostered a distrust that couldn’t be overcome in time for the general. There was no excitement among the GOP base to match the excitement among Democrats.

This should be a wake up call for Republicans moving into the midterm elections.

Business as usual no longer works. You can no longer run a campaign selling what you’ve always sold, because a third of the people in your party are now buying something else. That’s a lesson we should have learned nationwide in 2016 with the election of President Trump, and that’s the lesson we should have learned in the Virginia presidential primary.  

When one party tosses the other out of the White House, it needs an energized base the following year, because the party now out of the White House is already energized.

In 1993, after Democrat Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonNever underestimate Joe Biden Joe Biden demonstrates public health approach will solve America's ills McAuliffe rising again in Virginia MORE won the White House, Republicans Christie Todd Whitman and George Allen won the New Jersey and Virginia governorships respectively.  Eight years later, after Republican George W. Bush was elected president, Democrats Jim McGreevey and Mark Warner won the New Jersey and Virginia governorships.  Eight years later, after Democrat Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaCensus results show White House doubling down on failure Gender politics hound GOP in Cheney drama Never underestimate Joe Biden MORE won his historic election, Republicans Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell won the New Jersey and Virginia governorships.

It’s also worth noting that Virginia has trended blue for almost a decade and is now considered a solid blue state, with no Republican winning statewide since McDonnell in 2009. In their excitement to blame the president for the Republican’s losses the media, and the Washington establishment, are acting as if it’s a dark red state that suddenly turned blue Tuesday night.

The seeds of this week’s defeat were sown when the Gillespie campaign chose, in the primary, to ignore electoral history as well as a large faction of Republicans in Virginia.

Republicans need to realize that doing what they’ve always done won’t get it done anymore in this new Trump era. They need to look at the makeup of their party and embrace the Republicans who put President Trump in office.

If Republicans don’t take this to heart going into the midterms, they’re going to find a lot of good, well meaning leaders going the way of Ed Gillespie, courtesy of the people in their party they chose to ignore. For those GOP House and Senate Members currently enjoying the majority, ignoring the lesson of Virginia will mean a one-way ticket to the minority.

Lauren DeBellis Appell was deputy press secretary for Sen. Rick Santorum’s (R-Pa.) successful 2000 re-election campaign, as well as assistant communications director for the Senate Republican Policy Committee (2001-2003).