What Virginia’s culture war governor’s race means for the 2018 midterms

Posted at 8:55 AM, Oct 26, 2017
and last updated 2017-10-26 08:55:40-04

The Virginia governor’s race has turned into a culture war.

And Democratic and Republican operatives worried about their party’s fortunes in the 2018 midterms are watching closely to see whether a GOP campaign using controversial tactics aimed at solidifying support from white voters can top a Democratic campaign that is concerned about minority turnout.

Republican Ed Gillespie for weeks has aired television ads featuring scary images of MS-13 gang members — an opening to accuse Democrat Ralph Northam of being weak on immigration enforcement.

Now, less than two weeks from a November 7 election that will be seen nationally as a barometer of President Donald Trump’s popularity and performance, and a testing ground for midterm messages, Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chair and George W. Bush adviser, is turning his focus in a new ad to a debate over Confederate monuments. He has supported keeping the monuments in place with additional context, while Northam, the state’s lieutenant governor, has called for them to be moved to museums.

Left: Ralph Northam | Right: Ed Gillespie

“I’m for keeping them up and he’s for taking them down. And that’s a big difference in November,” Gillespie says in the ad.

The race — and Gillespie’s tactics in particular — have given national Republican and Democratic operatives a lot to examine as they approach the 2018 midterm elections.

The ads began six weeks ago as Gillespie’s campaign searched for ways to win over Trump’s supporters — many of whom supported Corey Stewart, Trump’s former state campaign chairman — in the primary without latching Gillespie too closely to the President himself. Trump is unpopular with many of the suburban northern Virginia voters Gillespie will need to win what polls show will be a tight race.

CNN spoke to several Republican and Democratic operatives involved in the 2018 campaigns, all of whom were not authorized to speak publicly and asked not to be named.

The Republicans said they see Gillespie’s MS-13 ads as a way to make campaigns about security. One operative compared Gillespie’s campaign to that of Georgia Republican Rep. Karen Handel. Handel hammered Democrat Jon Ossoff on national security issues en route to winning a special election in Atlanta’s northern suburbs this spring.

“That is where Republicans can draw the starkest contrast,” another Republican involved in 2018 campaigns said.

Democrats working on 2018 races, meanwhile, say they are curious to see how Gillespie performs in suburban areas that have similar demographics to some of the most competitive House districts.

Their hope is that Gillespie went too far with over-the-top ads. And there’s evidence Gillespie’s campaign is aware it risked alienating some voters with ads that Latino and immigration groups have denounced: Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez will campaign with Gillespie next week.

Virginia Democrats are chiefly concerned that African-American turnout will lag in the off-year election — a worry that’s fueling their actions, too.

Days after former President Barack Obama drew thousands to a Northam rally in Richmond, two more prominent black Democrats — California Sen. Kamala Harris and former Attorney General Eric Holder — will hold Virginia events this weekend.

Northam’s campaign has spent $3.5 million on phone calls and door-knocking efforts to reach minority voters. He has also spent heavily on radio and mail ads targeting black voters.

This week, the state Democratic Party sent voters a mailer that features Gillespie and Trump superimposed over an image of the tiki torch-carrying neo-Nazis who caused chaos in Charlottesville. “Virginia gets to stand up to hate,” the mailer says.

Gillespie said in August that the white supremacists “have no place” in Virginia. But he didn’t criticize Trump’s suggestion that “many sides” were to blame — which is the basis of the Democratic mailer.

“For 73 days, Ed Gillespie has refused to call out Donald Trump’s response to Charlottesville for what it was: disheartening and wrong,” said Northam spokesman David Turner. “When the Charlottesville community wanted leadership to help them heal, he failed. Ed Gillespie should be willing to call out Donald Trump when he’s wrong, and because he won’t, he gives voters a clear choice on November 7.”

Gillespie’s campaign did not respond to CNN’s request for comment, but Gillespie campaign manager Chris Leavitt told The Washington Post that Northam “should be ashamed” of the mailer.

“To now see Ralph Northam and the Democratic ticket exploit imagery from that tragic weekend to try to score political points is both outrageous and beneath the dignity of the offices they seek,” he said.

Democrats also believe Gillespie’s ads — particularly those targeting Northam over current Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s moves to automatically restore felons’ voting rights — are designed to prey on racial fears.

But after the coalition that carried Obama to victory twice failed to push Clinton to victory in 2016, Democrats fear that the party can’t inspire minority voters without Obama on the ballot.

“Off-year elections, midterm elections — Democrats, sometimes, y’all get a little sleepy. You get a little complacent,” Obama said in Richmond.

“And so as a consequence, folks wake up and they’re surprised — ‘How come we can’t get things through Congress? How come we can’t get things through the state house?'” Obama said. “Because you slept through the election.”