In race for Virginia governor, selectively playing the 'Trump card'

GOP candidate Ed Gillespie is blending establishment credentials with Trump-style ads on immigration and crime, while Democrat Ralph Northam is also trying to unify disparate wings of his party. The race is being closely watched as a key test of messaging and enthusiasm heading into the 2018 midterm elections. 

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Ed Gillespie, the Republican candidate for governor of Virginia, speaks during a campaign event at the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce in Tysons, Va.

Sen. Tim Scott storms the stage, the final – and most animated – speaker at a rally for Virginia’s Republican candidate for governor, Ed Gillespie.

“Ed is my brother from another mother!” jokes Senator Scott of South Carolina, the only black Republican in the US Senate. The crowd of 150 people laughs. “I’m glad that’s funny even in Virginia,” Scott adds ruefully.  

It was a poignant moment in the final days of a contest marked by brutal ads on racially charged topics – crime, illegal immigration, the future of Confederate monuments – following the violent rally three months ago not far away in Charlottesville.

Mr. Gillespie’s Democratic opponent, the soft-spoken Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, has taken hits for not disavowing forcefully enough an ad by a Latino group showing a pickup truck with a Confederate flag and Gillespie sticker trying to mow down minority children.

But it is the Gillespie campaign’s no-holds-barred ads attacking Lieutenant Governor Northam that represent the real test of Tuesday’s election: Can a Republican who embodies establishment politics win a major battleground state in the Trump era by adding a measure of populist-nationalism to his message?

“Ed Gillespie has had to run this split-personality campaign,” says Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va. “He’s had to run as Donald Trump and Corey Stewart on immigration, crime, and monuments – but he’s also tried to run as Mitt Romney and George H.W. Bush on the economy.” 

Mr. Stewart is the Trump acolyte who almost beat Gillespie in the Republican primary.

The Virginia race has taken on outsize national meaning for both parties. For the Democrats, a victory by Northam would be a welcome salve at a time of bitter internal divisions over the 2016 presidential loss – and a new round of finger-pointing stemming from former Democratic National Committee chairwoman Donna Brazile’s explosive new book.

For Republicans, the stakes are just as large. If Gillespie wins, or even loses narrowly, he will have shown how a mainstream Republican can be competitive by selectively playing the “Trump card" in an electoral battleground. Democrat Hillary Clinton won increasingly diverse Virginia by five points in last year’s presidential race, her only victory in the South.

A 'happy warrior' on the stump

Gillespie hasn’t gone “full Trump.” He doesn’t mention Trump at campaign events, and didn’t ask Trump to campaign for him. He doesn’t discuss racially charged issues, unless asked. On a makeshift stage Saturday night in a hangar at Chesterfield County Airport, just south of Richmond, Gillespie is ever the happy warrior, talking poll data and economic growth.

“I have 20 specific, detailed policy proposals,” enthuses Gillespie, a former top aide to President George W. Bush, former national and Virginia Republican party chairman, and founder of a major lobbying firm.

But across Virginia, Gillespie campaign efforts to stir up the Trump base are on vivid display, with TV ads and mailers blasting Northam on sanctuary cities, Latino gangs, Confederate monuments, and national anthem protests by NFL players.

Among the crowd gathered to support Gillespie on this final weekend before the vote, these hot-button issues resonate – including within some minority communities.

“Ed understands public safety and illegal immigration,” says Venkat Venigalla, an Indian immigrant who works in information technology. “He has promised to keep the Indian community safe.”

Northam was slow to respond to Gillespie’s attacks, and has struggled to clearly articulate his views. As a state legislator, Northam opposed legislation to ban sanctuary cities – of which there are none in Virginia – but last week said he would sign legislation banning them. 

Then there’s the issue of Confederate statues. Gillespie, originally from New Jersey, favors keeping the monuments up, but Northam – a native Virginian whose family history intersects with the Civil War and slavery – has taken evolving positions. Initially he called for their removal, but now he says it should be a local decision.

At a farmer’s market Saturday in Democrat-dominant Northern Virginia, Northam’s press secretary was confronted by an older white woman demanding to know the lieutenant governor’s position on Confederate monuments. When given the response, she stormed off. “That’s [expletive],” she said. “And I’m a Democrat.”

Moments later, this reporter asked Northam himself the same question: What should happen to Confederate monuments? He offered a qualified solution – and showed that he does not speak in sound bites.

“If there are monuments that are divisive and that promote hatred and bigotry, then I believe personally that they need to be in museums, with historical context, and I also believe that that should be dealt with in the localities in the different regions,” Northam said, after discussing the Aug. 12 tragedy in Charlottesville, when white supremacists marched to protect a Confederate statue, resulting in the death of one counterprotester.

The localities themselves should pay for the statues’ removal, he added. “Bottom line is, we live in a very diverse society, so we need to be inclusive, and we need to be sensitive to all people’s feelings,” says Northam, who is a pediatric neurologist and an Army veteran.

A September poll by the Wason Center shows 54 percent of Virginia's registered voters oppose removing monuments from public spaces.

The Trump effect

Northam, a moderate Democrat, faces the mirror image of Gillespie’s challenge: Northam defeated a more progressive candidate, former Rep. Tom Perriello, in the primary, and needs to energize Mr. Perriello’s supporters to turn out.

Northam, at least, has a ready-made foil, with Trump in the White House. For the past 40 years, the party that wins the White House has always lost the Virginia governor’s race a year later – until 2013, when Democrat Terry McAuliffe won.

Trump’s election has also spurred an outpouring of Democrats seeking office in Virginia – including women and people of color – and the party is poised to gain seats, but not the majority, in the state House of Delegates. A Democratic campaign manager in a delegate race suggests a “reverse coattail” effect, in which excitement for his candidate could spur turnout for Northam.

Still, Gillespie seems to have benefited from all the racially charged issues dominating the Virginia contest in the final weeks, as polls have tightened.

“To some degree, I think those issues have played better for Gillespie, when thinking about the problems with his base,” says Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville.

Northam has faced criticism for focusing too much on the white vote, in a state that’s 20 percent African American and has a growing Latino and Asian population. At its heart, the Virginia governor’s race is New South versus Old  South – with the Democratic stronghold of northern Virginia growing in proportion to more Republican rural and downstate areas.

But Democrats are adamant that they’re not taking minority voters for granted. On Saturday, Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez campaigned with Justin Fairfax, the black Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, at a Latino grocery store in Woodbridge, about 25 miles from Washington.

Some of the shoppers didn’t speak English, but Mr. Perez – the son of Dominican immigrants, and fluent in Spanish – was undaunted, engaging shoppers himself and pitching in as interpreter for Mr. Fairfax. This reporter spoke with the shoppers afterwards to get their reactions, and discovered that many are not citizens and therefore not eligible to vote.

When asked about this, Perez said he asked them to share information about Northam and Fairfax with friends and relatives who can vote. And someday, he said, they too may be voting Americans.

“We are investing in the future,” said Perez.

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