WASHINGTON — The hazards of Trump-inspired appeals to white nationalism were laid bare for Republicans this week in a closely watched Virginia election, exposing dangers for the GOP as it fights to extend control of Congress in 2018.
Ed Gillespie, an adviser in the George W. Bush White House and former chairman of the national party, was soundly defeated in the governor’s race after running a campaign that focused on protecting Confederate monuments and eliminating safe havens for undocumented immigrants.
Gillespie’s strategy shocked establishment Republicans but was seen as a grand experiment by some GOP strategists, testing whether President Trump’s playbook of explicit appeals to racial resentment could spell victory in a key swing state.
The result: Districts with higher-income, better-educated voters handily dispatched Gillespie in favor of the Democrat in the race, and turnout among nonwhites was significantly higher than expected.
The majority of Virginia voters, it turned out, had little appetite to be defined by attitudes that stoked the white supremacist rioting last summer in Charlottesville. They resoundingly swept Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, into office, 54 percent to Gillespie’s 45.
The outcome could be a harbinger of bad news for Republicans defending Senate seats in the key battleground states of Arizona and Nevada. Hard-right primary candidates backed by Breitbart News chief — and former Trump adviser — Steve Bannon are stoking white identity and antiestablishment sentiments in those states in a struggle for the ideological heart of the Senate.
Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, a strong critic of Trump, has already dropped out of his reelection battle, decrying extremism in the party. The most well-known Republican in the primary to replace him is Kelli Ward, who has a penchant for divisive rhetoric and has riled the Arizona GOP. She has received the endorsement of conservative media stars such as right-wing Fox News hosts Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham.
In Nevada, establishment incumbent Senator Dean Heller is facing a Bannon-inspired challenge in the form of Danny Tarkanian, another pro-Trump candidate. Tarkanian has lost multiple statewide campaigns in Nevada, but he has energized the Trump base by demanding that Heller sign a pledge to replace Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell. He was ahead of Heller in at least one recent primary poll.
“I am proud to stand with my friend Steve Bannon,’’ Tarkanian said after McConnell’s forces attacked Bannon.
There could even be danger for Republicans in Tennessee, which is seen as more reliably Republican. Andy Ogles, the former head of the ultra-conservative Americans For Prosperity in Tennessee, has announced he would run for the seat of retiring Senator Bob Corker and would rely on anti-immigrant pledges such as “build the wall.’’
Some GOP observers see the upcoming Senate races as a possible last stand for the issues-oriented conservatives who don’t wish to see their party become a silo for white voters — especially when America is increasingly diverse.
“This is one of those basic tectonic splits of the party,” said Charlie Sykes, the former conservative radio host and prominent Trump critic. “It really does pit people who believe the United States is a country based on an inclusive idea versus those who really do seem to lean on the ‘blood and soil’ approach to nationalism.”
Like Trump, the latter group thrives on a vision of nationalism that stokes cultural divides such as preserving Confederate statues and personally insulting football players kneeling to protest police brutality. They often use overtly anti-Muslim rhetoric and denounce economic “globalists,” a term with anti-Semitic undertones.
Traditional Republicans warn that a rejection of inclusive politics by the Bannon wing of the party will spell trouble down the road.
“The first commercial I ever made for George Bush was about opening a bridge between Mexico and Texas, and now all the talk is about a wall,” said Stuart Stevens, a former Mitt Romney campaign adviser and lifelong Republican who has been vocally opposed to Trump.
He compared Trump’s and Bannon’s style of politics to that of George Wallace, the former Alabama governor and infamous segregationist.
“This is all part of this tremendous hijacking, in my view, of what conservatism was about and what the Republican Party is about,” Stevens said. “This is straight out of the George Wallace playbook. . . . There’s a real ugliness to it.”
Ana Navarro, the Republican strategist and frequent Trump critic who has denounced her party’s nativist swing, said, “It is feeling increasingly lonely on Sane Republican Survivor Island.”
“The retirements of traditional Republicans means we’ll see more nativist Republicans coming out of primaries,” Navarro said. “The ‘Trumpublicans’ will exert a bigger influence on the image and tone and claim a bigger piece of the pie of the party.”
In Washington, the signs of the growing split between — as Navarro called them — “Trumpublicans’’ and Republicans are becoming more evident after a year in which intraparty differences were often papered over.
The Senate Leadership Fund, a fund-raising group closely tied to McConnell, has started targeting Bannon directly in tweets and press releases, attempting to link him to white nationalism.
In one tweet, the fund referenced allegations by Bannon’s ex-wife that he made anti-Semitic statements about “whiny brat” Jews — an assertion that Bannon has previously denied. Another tweet highlighted Breitbart News’ declining Internet traffic.
“Failing @BreitbartNews: traffic plummets 20% this year, desperate for attention! SAD!” the group tweeted in late October.
There are even open whispers among lawmakers. Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse recently told a conservative radio host that “a new kind of identity politics” was overtaking conservatives, which Sasse described as a “white grievance backlash.”
Flake highlighted the shifts when he announced he would not seek reelection.
“It is clear at this moment that a traditional conservative who believes in limited government and free markets, who is devoted to free trade, and who is pro-immigration, has a narrower and narrower path to nomination in the Republican Party,” Flake said on the Senate floor last month.
But Flake made these pronouncements while announcing his retirement from the Senate, nudged out by the recognition that he “couldn’t run the kind of race that I would be proud of and win in a Republican primary at this time,” he said.
What this means, according to political experts, is that there is some understanding within the “old guard” of the party that Bannon’s and Trump’s brand of white identity politics is currently on the ascendancy.
“In any parliamentary system across Europe, these two sides wouldn’t even be in the same party, and in many cases, they wouldn’t even be a part of the same coalition of governance,” said Justin Gest, a George Mason University professor and author of “The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality.”
“Because of the United States electoral system,” Gest said, “these two have to be bedfellows or they yield a Democratic majority for the next generation.’’Herndon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.