Bannon had been bullish on a Gillespie win and had even offered to campaign for him—a suggestion that Gillespie rejected. (Gillespie also kept distance from Trump himself, who accused him after the fact of “not embracing me or what I stand for.”) Bannon told The New York Times earlier this week that Gillespie had “rallied around the Trump agenda.”
“Trumpism without Trump can show the way forward,” Bannon said.
Bannon and his fellow travelers have cast Gillespie’s loss not as an indication that Trump is toxic, but as a cautionary tale about what happens when you don’t hug Trump tightly enough. They have pointed out that Gillespie wasn’t their first choice to begin with.
“I think it’s really fucking hilarious that the McConnell people are running around trying to pin this on us when it was their candidate in the primaries,” said one Bannon ally. “It’s true that towards the end we tried putting lipstick on a pig, but that’s always a difficult thing to do.”
Stewart, who is planning to run for Senate in 2018, told me Gillespie’s defeat shows “how important it is to support the president and have a strong message, and not do what Ed Gillespie did which is basically to have no message. He ran away from the president and the Republican base stayed home because of it.”
Stewart pointed out that Jill Vogel, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor whom Bannon praised as a “fire-breathing populist”, outperformed Gillespie (though she still lost). The Bannon ally said Vogel had met weeks ago with Bannon and his team and had told them that she was concerned Gillespie would drag down her numbers.
Bannon’s attitude toward Gillespie shifted quickly after Tuesday. Breitbart called Gillespie a “swamp creature” and Bannon briefly addressed the Virginia result during his Michigan speech after about 20 minutes of play-by-play reminisces of the 2016 election. He portrayed the loss as an unfortunate but not surprising defeat of an establishment squish in an increasingly liberal state.
Calling Gillespie a “good man” but “more of an establishment guy” than Stewart, Bannon said “Virginia is a blue state now. One of the things that the Gillespie campaign shows is that you can’t fake the Trump agenda. You have to go all in.” Bannon said he hadn’t been comfortable with how much time Trump spent campaigning in Virginia, which he lost to Hillary Clinton by five points.
But Republicans outside Bannon-world think Tuesday’s results may herald a wider backlash at the ballot box against the party’s embrace of Trump, particularly in suburban areas. An energized Democratic base came out in droves to vote in Virginia, a sign of the opposition’s commitment to its cause and its level of energy heading into 2018.
“That suburban vote is scary,” the Republican pollster and data analyst Chris Wilson, who worked on Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign, said in an email. “If it were just VA, we could put it down to federal workers and contractors, but it happened in PA and elsewhere too. If you're a GOP incumbent in a heavily suburban, college-educated district, I think you're worried today and rightfully so.”