Washington (CNN)Ed Gillespie's resounding loss in Tuesday's Virginia governor's race -- coupled with a series of other losses in lower-profile races around the country -- will likely take what was bubbling concern among Republicans about their prospects in the 2018 midterms and transform it into a frothing cauldron of panic.
The 2017 election is going to send Republicans into a total panic
That panic is born not from the fact of Gillespie's defeat but the way in which he lost -- and the role President Donald Trump and Trumpism played in that loss.
Gillespie, like lots and lots of Republicans in the House and Senate, is very much an establishment figure. A former chairman of the Republican National Committee. A senior member of Bushworld. A GOP lobbyist. A conservative but someone willing to compromise. A pragmatist not an ideologue.
And yet, on the biggest election night since Trump engaged in a hostile takeover of the GOP 18 months ago, even Gillespie was unable to escape the Trump vortex. Despite largely keeping Trump at arm's length -- a fact the President noted in a "don't blame me" tweet shortly after the race was called Tuesday night -- Gillespie watched as anti-Trump sentiment in key regions of the commonwealth doomed his chances of pulling off an upset victory. (Worth noting: In the race's final weeks, Gillespie embraced many elements of Trump messaging -- defending Confederate monuments, attacking MS-13 and sanctuary cities etc.)
From the DC exurbs of Loudoun County (where Northam won by an eye-popping 20 points) to the conservative Richmond suburbs of Chesterfield County (where Gillespie appeared to eke out a win), voters turned out in droves to send a clear message to Trump: We don't like what you're doing. At all.
Almost six in 10 Virginians disapproved of the job Trump is doing as president, according to exit polling. Half of the Virginia electorate said that Trump was a major factor in their vote on Tuesday; of that group, twice as many said they saw their vote as a way to voice opposition to Trump as said they voted the way they did to express support for the President.
There's simply no way to explain the demolition of Gillespie in the suburbs and exurbs other than a strong distaste for Trump among those voters.
And, for all of the caveats and the don't-read-too-much-into-one-race-ism by the "smart" political reporters, the simple fact is that every single Republican politician in the halls of Congress will be paying very close attention to what happened in Virginia Tuesday night and wondering what it all means for them.
What it means -- at least as of today -- is this: Trump remains a potent and powerful force in Republican primaries. But, he is a potentially toxic taint with the broader general electorate.
Which puts Republicans -- especially those facing potentially serious primary challenges or who sit in swing districts in the general election -- in a no-win position. Run away from Trump and risk losing your primary fight. Run with Trump and risk losing the general election. Badly.
Already, faced with the possibility of being driven out of the party by the pro-Trump forces, a number of Republicans from the so-called "governing wing" of the GOP are heading for the exits.
New Jersey Rep. Frank LoBiondo joined their ranks on Tuesday -- before the election results were known -- with a statement that tilted very heavily toward his distaste for the current political realities within his party.
"As some of my closest colleagues have also come to realize, those of us who came to Congress to change Washington for the better through good governance are now the outliers," LoBiondo said. "In legislating, we previously fought against allowing the perfect to become the enemy of the good. Today, a vocal and obstinate minority within both parties has hijacked good legislation in pursuit of no legislation."
LoBiondo joines the likes of Reps. Dave Reichert (Washington), Charlie Dent (Pennsylvania), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Florida) and Dave Trott (Michigan) as members of the pragmatic wing of the GOP -- all of whom represent seats that will be Democratic pickup targets -- calling it quits in advance of the 2018 election.
For members who remain on the fence about whether or not to stick around for another term, the Virginia results will be terrifying. And, in turn, more open seats make for a more volatile political environment for Republicans. And the more open seats for Democrats to target, the better chance they have at making a very serious run at regaining their House majority next November. And the possibility of going from the majority to the minority come 2019 will be a major disincentive for Republicans pondering their political futures.
In short: Panic builds on itself. It snowballs.
The across-the-board losses in Virginia, not to mention other Republican defeats on Long Island, New Jersey, Maine, New Hampshire and Washington State -- among others -- suggest that Trump is not only a drag on his party in general elections but also a massive turnout motivator for the Democratic base. (This was true of President Barack Obama and Republicans; Obama was, effectively, the only person who was able to unite the Republican Party.)
Waking up Wednesday morning, Republicans are being smacked in the face with the reality of a Trump presidency: He is a man beloved by their base and disliked almost everywhere else.
That's a massive political problem without an easy or obvious solution.