*Photo Credit: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
These days, it’s not surprising when politics gets nasty. After all, 2016 was a new landmark of nastiness in politics, and it doesn’t appear to have been an isolated incident.
Over in Virginia, as its citizens gear up to decide their next Governor, the campaign has been incredibly nasty. The state’s airwaves are filled with ads accusing the Democrat of helping street gangs grow and ads accusing the Republican of being supportive of running over minority children with trucks.
Perhaps this level of discourse should not be a surprise considering how polarized the country has gotten, But the bigger surprise comes from exactly who the nominees are in this vicious race. The Republican nominee is not some fiery Tea Party activist but Ed Gillespie, the Bush-era Republican National Committee Chair and lobbyist. Gillespie was known as a typical conservative Republican and a decent campaigner to boot, having nearly beaten the popular Senator Mark Warner against all odds during the 2014 midterm. His campaign had achieved this near victory by focusing on jobs, small businesses, and tax cuts. When he announced his run for Governor, many expected the 2014 campaign strategy to be used once again.
Ralph Northam is the Democratic nominee for Governor and, like Gillespie, has a fairly establishment and milquetoast background. A former Republican, Northam rose rapidly through the ranks of Virginia politics, first as a State Senator and then as a lieutenant governor, the position he currently holds. Since then, Northam mostly kept a standard liberal profile.
However, both these men found themselves running for Governor in a vastly different political environment than the one which they had risen through. The election of Donald Trump had polarized the electorate on both sides. For Republicans, promising to cut taxes and repealing Obamacare were no longer going to suffice. Republicans everywhere were expected to embrace Trump and follow with his type of culture war policies. The Democrats have also become more demanding in their candidates and require their nominees to be sufficiently liberal to “resist” Trump.
Personifying these insurgent movements within the party where primary challengers against the establishment candidates. For Northam, it was the progressive Tom Perriello. Perriello, a one term Congressman who won a Republican district in the 2008 wave, was once seen as a rising star and had been planning his comeback for years, sensing he could use the progressive grassroots to propel him to the nomination. Northam recognized this flanking maneuver by Perriello as well as the moody of the party and quickly embraced a progressive platform, easily beating Perriello by ten points.
In fact, it would be on the Republican side that would create the most surprises. Corey Stewart, the former Trump campaign Virginia chair, had entered the race for the nomination as the unabashedly Trumpist candidate despite having been fired by Trump himself after organizing a protest against the RNC back during the election. His campaign was broadly dismissed, especially considering how Trump lost Virginia and even more so after the Minnesota-born Stewart responded to the tragedy and murder in Charlottesville by white supremacists by doubling down on defending Confederate statues. So it came as a shock when on the night of the primary, Corey Stewart would come only 5,000 votes from defeating Ed Gillespie for the nomination.
While Northam had long ago decided to run to the left, it seems this near surprise loss is what laid the seeds for Gillespie to run to the cultural right. Spending a few months campaigning on his old 2014 platform to unimpressive polling, Gillespie would hire Trump campaign director Jack Morgan and change his rhetoric on Confederate statues to be less nuanced and more explicitly supportive. Gillespie would also start attacking Northam for supporting sanctuary cities policies which help MS-13, a rising street gang in the DC/Northern VA area. The business candidate was suddenly running a distinctly culture war enflamed campaign.
That is not to say that Gillespie has run as a Corey Stewart though. His campaign has focused on these culture war issues as opposed to taxes, but the name “Trump” has been conspicuously absent from his campaign. One can find nary a trace of the word on his campaign page (not even on his list of endorsements!). Mike Pence has held rallies for Gillespie, but not Trump. This seems to be part of a strategy to try to find a balance between the Trumpist populism that the Republican base seems to want with the more establishment business conservative policies that donors, and more transactional voters, desire. By focusing on certain cultural wedge issues, Gillespie hopes to find the formula to keep the creaky Republican coalition together.
Northam however has not been a passive observer of Gillespie’s entreaties towards the Trump base. The Virginia Democratic Party has mailed out ads showing a picture of Gillespie alongside Trump and the tiki-bearing white supremacists in Charlottesville, a group that Gillespie has strongly denounced.
This rhetoric was escalated when a pro-Northam fund, Latino Victory Fund, aired an ad that has been making waves. In it, minority children are playing together in a neighborhood when suddenly arrives a shadowy man in a pickup truck with a large Confederate flag, a Gadsden flag license plate, and a “Gillespie for Senate” bumper sticker. The truck chases down the minority children until they are cornered against a fence and then runs them down. The children then wake up to realize it is all a dream. The ad cuts to a couple watching the Charlottesville white supremacist rally on television as a voiceover asks, “Is this what Donald Trump and Ed Gillespie mean by the American dream?”
The ad has fired up a large amount of controversy to which the Latino Victory Fund stood by until a terrorist attack in New York City where an Islamist drove a truck into a bicycle lane, killing 8 people. On Twitter, the Latino Victory Fund’s President stated, “We knew our ad would ruffle feathers. We held a mirror up to the Republican Party, and they don’t like what they see. We have decided to pull our ad at this time.”
At the time of this article, the RealClearPolitics polling aggregate of this race is +3.6 in Northam’s favor, a significant improvement for Gillespie. But while that is the average, polling as a whole has been all over the place with this race, showing anywhere from +17 Northam to +8 Gillespie. While Northam may have a slight edge, it is probably more accurate to view this race as a genuine toss-up. Liberals are energized but Gillespie has done well at firing up the Trump base as well without abandoning the more traditional Republican voters — a difficult task that was key to President Trump’s Electoral College victory.
The results of this election on November 7 is also likely to have a significant national impact. Democrats, having lost every major election since Trump’s inauguration, are itching for a win and will likely look for someone to blame if Northam fails. With Northam having said he would sign a bill against sanctuaries cities if they were to arise, there is a case to be made by progressives that if Northam loses, it is because establishment Democrats are insufficiently progressive and may seek primary opportunities in 2018.
Republicans, on the other hand, are likely looking at Gillespie to see whether it is possible to win through his unique strategy of merging Trumpist and establishment Republican rhetoric by focusing on cultural issues and appeals to “law and order.” If the answer is yes, then expect more Republicans to follow suit and continue Trump’s takeover (if not in policy then in style) of the GOP. If not, perhaps there will be more skepticism from elected Republicans as to how far to embrace Trump.
Regardless, the 2017 Virginia gubernatorial race will probably have significant repercussions on 2018. Keep an eye on the Old Dominion on November 7.