Virginia Governor’s Race Is a Harbinger of Things to Come

You would be hard pressed to find a Republican candidate who is more establishment than Ed Gillespie. He is running against Democrat Ralph Northam in the race to be the next governor of Virginia in an election that will take place on November 7th. As the former chair of the Republican National Committee, Gillespie narrowly lost a Senate race in 2014 to Mark Warner, in which he ran a campaign aligned with the Republican Party’s “autopsy report” following their loss in the 2012 presidential election.

Gillespie’s campaign this time around has focused primarily on the age-old Republican fixation on tax cuts. But he has also launched some of the most xenophobic ads that have ever been produced, reminding many of the whole Willie Horton episode in George H.W. Bush’s presidential campaign. Here is the latest:

That comes right on the heels of another one with a similar message. A previous ad accused Northam of wanting to keep information about sexual predators away from parents.

Before addressing the politics of all of this, let’s get some facts straight. On the issue of Northam’s supposed support for sanctuary cities and its effect on crime in Virginia:

The ad was based on a tiebreaking vote Northam cast in the state Senate this year, against a bill that would have prohibited the establishment of sanctuary cities, which are generally defined as localities that limit or ban cooperation with federal immigration authorities. Virginia does not have any sanctuary cities.

The ad about sexual predators is based on Northam’s support for “ban the box” initiatives, which would curb the state’s ability to ask about potential employees’ criminal histories. Until recently, that effort has received support from conservatives, especially at the state and local level.

Given the recent events in Charlottesville, the issue of Confederate statues has loomed large in this election. Gillespie narrowly won the Republican primary against Corey Stewart, who made that a centerpiece of his campaign. So mailers like this are showing up as well:

While you might assume that Virginia is trending blue because it was the only formerly Confederate state that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, it is worth noting that the Republican Party has been getting more extreme—something that is more the norm around the country rather than the exception. So, like it or not, Gillespie is forced to appeal to the GOP’s insurgent base, even as he runs in a state that is trending blue.

While the whole Willie Horton episode demonstrates that this strategy is nothing new, Gillespie’s campaign speaks volumes about the state of the Republican Party right now. As the ultimate establishment candidate, he is attempting to straddle the two extremes of the party right now: running on tax cuts for wealthy donors while offering xenophobic fear-mongering to the nativist base. We’ll see how that works out on November 7th, but it is yet another clear indication that this is Steve Bannon’s party now. I suspect that Gillespie’s strategy is a harbinger of what’s to come in the 2018 midterms.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.