Ever since Donald Trump became president, wary Republican elites have believed he was an anomaly—a unique candidate who owed his success to celebrity appeal and weak opposition, despite some noxious views and behavior. Take away Trump the person, they believed, and there would be no Trump phenomenon.
That viewpoint got a rude wake-up call this week, in a Virginia Republican primary that wasn’t supposed to be a contest at all. And while the GOP establishment’s preferred candidate still won, the surprise result showed there’s still a substantial appetite in the party’s base for the populist impulses Trump represents.
Virginia elects governors in the odd-numbered years after presidential elections, and this year, it was Democrats whose primary looked like a pitched battle. Two well-credentialed progressives—one the sitting lieutenant governor, the other a former congressman and Obama administration official—were locked in a battle for the party’s soul. But despite polling showing a tight race, the Democratic establishment candidate, Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam, pulled out an easy win, defeating Tom Perriello by a 12-point margin.
On the Republican side, meanwhile, Ed Gillespie expected to coast to an easy victory over his main challenger, Corey Stewart, a Trump acolyte who highlighted his hard line on immigration and support for Confederate monuments. It doesn’t get much more “establishment” than Gillespie, a former D.C. lobbyist and chairman of the Republican National Committee. Polls had shown Gillespie up by 20 points over Stewart, a local county board chairman. Gillespie had all the major endorsements and many times as much money as Stewart.