Republicans' 2018 problem: Trumpism only works for Trump

GOP lawmaker: Election a referendum on Trump
GOP lawmaker: Election a referendum on Trump

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Washington (CNN)Ed Gillespie tried to use President Donald Trump's tricks: He sensationalized the dangers of sanctuary cities, he promised to defend Virginia's Confederate heritage and he attacked NFL players for kneeling during the National Anthem.

But as soon Gillespie lost the Virginia governor's race on Tuesday, Trump's allies in the Republican Party delivered their verdict.
Not Trumpy enough.
"Trying to be half-in, half-out with Donald Trump was never going to work," conservative radio host and Trump supporter Laura Ingraham said Tuesday night on Fox News. "If you dip your toe just in a little bit, you're going to turn out like Ed Gillespie did: political roadkill."
    That's the box Republicans find themselves in: The base is demanding fealty to Trump. But suburban voters have soured on the President. And other candidates -- including Gillespie and Sen. Luther Strange, who lost an Alabama Republican Senate primary despite Trump's support -- can't pull off Trumpism without being Trump.
    It's a Republican version of a problem that plagued Democrats for the last eight years: President Barack Obama's wins in 2008 and 2012 never transferred to other Democratic candidates who were wiped out in non-presidential elections in the Obama years.
    Gillespie was annihilated in Virginia's suburbs, where voter turnout surged and Democrats ran up much higher margins of victory than usual because they saw the election as a chance to rebuke Trump -- which Gillespie's Trump-like ad strategy only reinforced.
    The Democrats' suburban dominance led some swing-district Republicans to conclude that mimicking Trump was why Gillespie lost.
    Republican Rep. Scott Taylor, who saw Northam carry his Norfolk-based district, said the Virginia race was a referendum on Trump.
    "Some of the very divisive rhetoric really prompted and helped usher in a really high Democratic turnout in Virginia," Taylor said on CNN's "New Day."
    "You can only drill down on the base so hard," said GOP Sen. Jeff Flake, who is retiring from his Arizona seat next year. "And we're seeing the limits of that."
    However, other Republicans who more closely align themselves with Trump came to the exact opposite conclusion.
    Rep. Dave Brat, who represents a suddenly competitive central Virginia district, told CNN that Gillespie "failed to nationalize the election" and only turned to Trump-style issues late in the race.
    He highlighted Gillespie's focus on MS-13 gangs and his defense of Confederate monuments as among the strongest points in his campaign.
    "Two-thirds of Americans supported him on those issues, right?" Brat said.
    Perhaps, other Republicans said, the problem was the absence of Trump himself.
    Gillespie's television ads were all heavily infused with Trump messages. He used Northam's vote against a bill that would have banned sanctuary cities -- which don't actually exist in Virginia -- to portray his opponent as weak against MS-13 gangs. He attacked Northam for outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe's move to automatically restore the voting rights of felons who have served their time, and he promised to keep Confederate monuments in place -- two ads that progressives saw as racially tinged dog whistles.
    But in the race's final days, his events were with more moderate Republican figures -- including Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez.
    Gillespie never campaigned with Trump -- which stuck out, because Trump visited his own golf course in Virginia 15 times between Gillespie's winning the GOP nomination and Tuesday's election.
    "I do think there was a reluctance to see the President campaign in the state for him. The President could have added a lot as far as bringing out his supporters to help support Ed," White House legislative affairs director Marc Short said on MSNBC on Wednesday.
    Trump made the same point himself on Twitter on election night.
    "Ed Gillespie worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for," he tweeted.