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GOP faces wrenching call: Running with or away from Trump

Sweeping losses in Tuesday’s elections have exacerbated a growing rift inside the GOP over whether the party’s candidates should embrace President Donald Trump in next year’s midterms — or make a clean break.

With Trump’s approval ratings cratering in swing states across the country, some senior party strategists are imploring lawmakers to abandon the president. Others argue that shunning Trump and his populist base is simply out of the question and that anything other than a full embrace of the president will spell electoral disaster.

In the Virginia gubernatorial race, Republican Ed Gillespie tried to have it both ways — with disastrous consequences. Gillespie, who privately agonized about the degree to which Trump should be involved in the contest, refused to campaign with the president. But at the same time, he trumpeted Trump’s culture war issues in ads.

White House advisers spent Wednesday combing through the election results and fuming about Gillespie’s have-it-both ways approach. By keeping Trump at arm’s length, they said, Gillespie squandered an opportunity to motivate conservatives whose support he needed.

“He wouldn’t embrace the president, so the base that came out to vote for the president and that voted for me, didn’t come out,” said Prince County William Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart, a Trump campaign official who nearly defeated Gillespie in the June GOP primary. “The Trump-Stewart base just didn’t turn out.”

Others, however, said Gillespie – an establishment-minded former Beltway lobbyist who never felt entirely at ease highlighting populist issues – went too far in aligning himself with the president. By vowing to preserve the state’s Confederate monuments and to combat MS-13 gang violence, they argued, the candidate fired up Democrats in the state’s population centers and liberal northern suburbs.

Appearing onstage with the president would have only exacerbated the problem, they said.

“Be yourself and run your own campaign,” said GOP strategist John Weaver, a veteran of presidential campaigns. “Don’t embrace this nationalist approach.”

Trump, he added, “is a tremendous drag in a general election.”

Republicans running down-ballot have long grappled with how to deal with the president. But as Trump’s poll numbers wane and the midterm season grows closer, the debate has taken on greater urgency. While the president’s approval ratings have plummeted in moderate and liberal areas, his core base of supporters have remained steadfast.

The dilemma is expected to be a major topic of discussion at the Republican Governors Association annual meeting in Austin, Texas next week. And top House GOP campaign strategists, trying to preserve their now-tenuous majority, said they wanted to look more deeply into the Virginia results before drawing conclusions.

“It’s quite a predicament,” said Tony Fabrizio, a longtime GOP pollster who worked on the Trump campaign.

“You can’t be the anti-Trump guy in the primary. But you don’t want to be the 100 percent for Trump guy in the general,” he added. “When you go to one extreme or the other, that’s when you fall short.”

Gillespie spent months trying to perform a balancing act. He emerged from a June primary deeply frustrated, after Trump supporters nearly powered Stewart to an upset victory. Gillespie vented about his political operation and even considered a staff shakeup. The former national party chairman sketched out several possible paths forward, including a full-on embrace of the president.

But Gillespie — who in 2006 penned an op-ed in which he warned the GOP against becoming an “anti-immigration party” — never felt truly comfortable running under the Trump banner, people close to the campaign said. So he adopted a moderated approach, airing commercials that spotlighted Trump-centric issues like MS-13 and the confederate monuments, while avoiding attaching himself to the president personally.

Gillespie’s team deliberated extensively about whether to bring Trump in for a campaign event in conservative southwest Virginia. The candidate ended up having Pence hold a campaign rally and fundraiser for him. But Gillespie never made a hard ask for the commander-in-chief.

In the end, Gillespie released around $500,000 worth of mailers highlighting the president’s endorsement of him. Trump also sent a batch of tweets highlighting his support. On Monday evening and then on Election Day, Trump released a robo-call bashing Democratic candidate Ralph Northam. One wave of the calls was directed to southwestern Virginia.

White House officials were dismayed by Gillespie’s approach, convinced that he ultimately got the worst of both worlds — ginning up liberal turnout without ever fully motivating Trump’s core supporters.

“GOP candidates cannot keep Trump at arm’s length right up until the end and then expect to energize the base,” said conservative radio show host Laura Ingraham, an outspoken Trump backer. “It seems inauthentic because it is.”

Stewart, for his part, said he reached out to Gillespie multiple times after the primary in hopes of getting persuading him to run a more pro-Trump campaign. But he said Gillespie never expressed much interest.

Tying oneself to Trump, however, may do little to step a rising tide of liberal enthusiasm. As they pored over voter figures on Wednesday, Gillespie’s strategists conceded they had been caught off guard by the wave of Democratic turnout.

“If you’re in a district or state with a high percentage of college-educated white voters you should be quaking in your boots right now,” said Phil Cox, a Gillespie adviser and former Republican Governors Association executive director.

He noted that Democrats far outperformed turnout expectations in an off-year election.

As to the difficult question of whether Republicans should align themselves with the president, “There will be a political market test,” Cox said. “Candidates will determine the outcome.”

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