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George F. Will: Treacherous Trumpian politics in Va.

| Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie speaks at a campaign rally at the Washington County Fairgrounds Oct. 14 in Abingdon, Va. Establishment figure Gillespie is in a neck-and-neck race against Democrat Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam. (Andre Teague/The Bristol Herald-Courier via AP)
Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie speaks at a campaign rally at the Washington County Fairgrounds Oct. 14 in Abingdon, Va. Establishment figure Gillespie is in a neck-and-neck race against Democrat Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam. (Andre Teague/The Bristol Herald-Courier via AP)

ARLINGTON, Va

The breakfasters at Bob and Edith's Diner are too preoccupied with bacon and eggs to notice the Democrat gubernatorial candidate in one of the booths, who supposedly is “fighting for the violent MS-13 killer gangs” involving Central American immigrants. The U.S. president says so, as does the gubernatorial candidate of his party.

In two weeks, Virginia will have America's most consequential election since 50 weeks ago. Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam won the Democrat nomination by defeating (by 10 points) a primary rival endorsed by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Now, Northam benefits from his opponent's intractable dilemma, that of all Republicans who remember life before 2016 and want to do what they are told cannot be done: Turn the clock back. Democrat Gov. Terry McAuliffe is popular. Virginia is purple trending blue: Democrats have carried it in three consecutive presidential races, have won three of the last four gubernatorial contests and both U.S. senators are Democrats. And Republican candidate Ed Gillespie has a problem residing across the Potomac.

In 2014, Gillespie — former counselor to President George W. Bush, former Republican National Committee chair, adviser to Mitt Romney's campaign, lobbyist extraordinaire — came within a whisker of defeating U.S. Sen. Mark Warner. This year, Gillespie barely defeated a full-throated Trumpian in the Republican primary. Gillespie is intelligent, temperate, experienced and happiest when talking about government policies. These attributes are, to his party's now-Trumpian base, defects of swamp creatures. So, he gingerly tiptoes across Trumpian Republican politics' treacherous terrain, which involves stoking the anger of people who seem happiest when furious, but without infuriating everyone else.

He did the former with dishonest MS-13 ads featuring tattooed dark-skinned men (“Kill, rape, control.”) and accusing Northam of refusing to crack down on “sanctuary cities,” of which Virginia has none. Gillespie's admirers say he is better than he sounds. Others, remembering Mark Twain (who popularized the quip “Wagner's music is better than it sounds”), say that a candidate is the way he chooses to sound.

If Gillespie enlists Trump to campaign for him, he will embrace a political style that entails a political substance (e.g., harping on MS-13) suited to it. If he does not, Trump's supporters will notice and accuse him of having standards, yet another swampish vice — the stigmata of elitism.

A Gillespie win would give Republicans another swing-state governor's mansion in 2020 and might send the Sanders/Warren true believers on a “We told you so!” rampage, arguing — convincingly only to other believers — that Virginians chose a conservative Republican because Northam was insufficiently progressive.

If Gillespie wins, Republicans elsewhere will conclude their party's derangement does not hinder it. If the Democrat wins, many progressives will be secretly as unhappy as the Trumpians who, like those progressives, will argue their man lost because he was inconsistently and insincerely enthusiastic about his party's most off-putting faction.

George F. Will is a columnist for Newsweek and The Washington Post.

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