RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Ed Gillespie's shocking near-defeat in the Virginia GOP primary for governor Tuesday highlights a hard truth for centrist Republicans in the age of President Donald Trump: keep too much of a distance from the president and his supporters will make you pay.
The former Republican National Committee chairman largely tried to avoid talking about Trump in his primary contest with Corey Stewart, a former Trump state campaign chairman who many viewed as a fringe candidate because of his focus on preserving Confederate history. Gillespie was expected to win handily, thanks to broad support among the party's elected leaders and a massive fundraising edge, but instead won by an uncomfortably close single percentage point.
Stewart said the razor-thin margin carries a clear message for Gillespie in the general election.
"If he wants to win, he's got to embrace the president. It's really that simple," said Stewart, who is chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors.
Swing-state Virginia is one of only two states electing governors this year, and the contest is expected to provide clues for how voters will react in the 2018 midterm elections nationwide. Gillespie is facing Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, who won the Democratic primary on Tuesday.
In the GOP race, Stewart ran a Trump-like campaign complete with a mocking nickname for Gillespie — "Establishment Ed" — and a hardline stance on illegal immigration. He also fashioned himself a champion of Confederate history, railing against efforts to have a statue of Confederal Gen. Robert E. Lee removed from a Charlottesville park. His strong showing Tuesday showed that there's a hunger for a "fighter" among Republican voters, Stewart said, who added that he may run for the U.S. Senate next year.
"I didn't win this battle, but we're not done," he said.
Gillespie called for party unity at an early morning rally in Richmond on Wednesday, but did not mention Stewart or the president when calling for Republicans to come together. He instead highlighted his plan to cut taxes and improve the state's economy.
"We will run a tireless campaign to make sure that we can get Virginia moving again," said Gillespie, who declined to take questions from reporters.
Stan Corn, a small business owner from Goochland, attended Gillespie's rally wearing a pro-Trump "Make American Great Again" red ball cap. He said he's a staunch supporter of the president and has no problem backing Gillespie. He said he expects the party to unite against Gillespie in order to keep Northam out of the Executive Mansion.
"The reality is we've got to do something and the Republicans know it," Corn said.
But Stewart said his supporters and Trump's voters won't back Gillespie until he can show that he's a "fighter" who supports them.
"I'm more than willing to sit down and talk with him and explain that to him," Stewart said.
Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University, said Gillespie may have to stake out more conservative positions than he's comfortable with in order to keep Trump voters energized to vote for him. At the same time, he can't afford to alienate more moderate voters.
"I haven't seen a Republican yet who has managed how to do it," Kidd said.
Democrats reacted with glee to Gillespie's scare and created a new website Wednesday — TrumpGillespie2017.com — to try and link Gillespie with the president.
They had planned a rally Wednesday with Northam and his dispatched opponent, former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello, to highlight the party's post-election harmony, but the event was cancelled after House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and others were shot in Northern Virginia.
Perriello ran as an unapologetic liberal crusader supported by prominent national Democrats like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren as the best candidate to take on Trump. He energized many new-to-politics voters who oppose Trump.
Northam, a usually low-key pediatric neurologist, won running as a pragmatist with the state Democratic establishment's firm support.
Perriello has pledged support to Northam in the general election and Democrats have expressed optimism that the party will be unified against Gillespie.
Tecla Murphy, a government attorney from Arlington, said Northam and Perriello had so much in common as candidates that "coming together as a party will be a fairly straightforward path."
Associated Press reporter Jessica Gresko in Arlington contributed to this report.