The Republican Party has been plunged into ever more turmoil, thanks to the outcome of the off-year election in Virginia, the results of contests elsewhere around the country and an allegation of sexual misconduct against Roy Moore, the party’s candidate for Senate in Alabama.
The Virginia gubernatorial campaign illustrated the Republican dilemma as it morphs into becoming the party of President Trump. For Ed Gillespie, the attempt at a balancing act proved awkward and ultimately unsuccessful. A candidate with deep roots in the establishment wing of the party, he tried, after receiving a scare in the primary from a pro-Trump opponent, to become more Trumpian.
The controversy over whether Moore should step aside in the face of an accusation of sexual misconduct with a teenager highlights the waning power of GOP leaders to affect the party’s fortunes and the split with the Republican ranks about how to deal with such problems. Moore has denied the allegation.
In Virginia, Gillespie’s strategy didn’t work. He lost to Democrat Ralph Northam by an unexpectedly wide margin of nine points. The margin of defeat has rightly rattled Republicans who wonder whether this portends an anti-Trump wave in next year’s midterm elections. The size of Northam’s margins among women (22 points) and voters younger than 45 (30 points) should add significantly to those concerns.
Virginia is not the nation. It has been trending blue for some time. Its population includes more college graduates than many states, and the proximity to the nation’s capital affects attitudes about the federal government. It is not Pennsylvania or Michigan or Wisconsin, states with different electorates, as the 2016 results demonstrated. But as the principal data point staring at Republicans over the weekend, Virginia illustrates why the debate about the party’s fate under Trump will accelerate. There are no easy answers.