Because Virginia and New Jersey are the only states that hold their governor's races in odd-numbered years, those elections tend to be over-interpreted for what they portend for the following year's congressional elections. But this year, the race in Virginia in particular may be a harbinger of what's to come — and what's to come is ugly.
In case you haven't been following it, the race pits Democrat Ralph Northam, a mild-mannered pediatrician currently serving as the state's lieutenant governor, against Ed Gillespie, the former chair of the Republican National Committee, aide to George W. Bush, and sought-after corporate lobbyist. While Northam has run an absolute snooze of a campaign, Gillespie's strategy has been described as "Trumpism without Trump," meaning that although he never mentions the president, Gillespie is running on the same kind of divisive, white nationalist appeal that got Trump elected.
To give you a flavor: Here's a Gillespie ad charging that Northam is soft on the MS-13 gang, who are coming to kill you and rape your daughters. Here's a Gillespie ad accusing Northam of wanting to give pedophiles a helping hand. And here's a Gillespie ad explaining that while Northam wants to tear down the state's beloved Confederate statues, Gillespie will stand up and protect them, so devoted is he to that noble heritage.
Ed Gillespie may seem like an unlikely figure to wage this kind of campaign, but there's ample precedent for "establishment" Republicans utilizing fear and hatred to get the rubes riled up and out to the polls. For example, George H.W. Bush was the very embodiment of patrician Republicanism, the kind of chap who uses "summer" as a verb, yet he deployed Willie Horton to convince voters that if his opponent were elected, hordes of dark-skinned convicts would rampage across the land raping white women while their helpless husbands were forced to watch.
Gillespie's campaign is firmly in the fine Republican tradition, and even if Northam pulls out a victory, Trupmism without Trump may have already won. While not too long ago Northam had a comfortable lead, it has now shrunk to around 3 points. And that's in a swing state that has been steadily turning more blue: Democrats have won the last three presidential votes in Virginia, and all five of the statewide elected officials (two senators, the governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general) are also Democrats.
So the lesson many Republicans will take from Gillespie's experience, and Donald Trump's victory in 2016, is that this is the way to win even when the odds are against you.
After all, Trump proved you can run a campaign of unapologetic white nationalism based on appealing to the most bigoted sentiments of your party's base, and you won't lose any Republican votes, even in the supposedly more genteel quarters of the party. Hillary Clinton tried incredibly hard to win over moderate Republicans by emphasizing how crass and unqualified Trump was, and she failed; according to exit polls, Trump got the votes of 90 percent of Republicans, about as well as recent candidates like Mitt Romney and John McCain did. With partisanship exercising such a powerful pull on voters, the most important question is whether you can get your people to the polls. And for Republican candidates, a white nationalist appeal is the easiest way to do it, particularly when there's no Democratic president to shake your fist at.
So if you're a Republican candidate next year, you could try distancing yourself from this unusually unpopular president to assure moderates and independents, but that won't be easy. It's not like anyone is going to forget who the leader of your party is. Or you could take Gillespie's route and run the angriest, most hateful campaign you possibly can, in the hopes of motivating the kind of white voters who flocked to the polls in 2016 to vote for Trump. While many of them may not have voted in midterm elections in the past, they might be your only hope.
And the way to get them out isn't by talking about the economy or health care or foreign policy, it's with tribal appeals that get them stirred up and angry. Even if Ed Gillespie falls short, he will have shown Republicans that it may be their only hope. Which means that the 2018 elections are going to be full of Republicans running desperate, morally repellent campaigns that appeal to the worst in people. They've had a lot of practice.