Under different circumstances—say, with Hillary Clinton in the White House—Republican Ed Gillespie might have been a favorite for the Virginia gubernatorial race. It was just three years ago that he almost won a Senate seat, nearly defeating the incumbent Democrat Mark Warner by riding a wave of anti-Obama conservative enthusiasm. As it stands, Gillespie is sinking, weighed down by President Trump’s stark unpopularity with most Virginians. But Trump is popular with some Virginians, and those voters may end up buoying Gillespie’s odds.
In a September poll of Virginia voters, just 35 percent said they approved of the president. And one-third of respondents said their vote in the November election will be a message of disapproval for Trump. Gillespie trails his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, by nearly seven points in the RealClearPolitics polling average. He could still win, but not without a change in the overall conditions of the race, like a major scandal (from either Northam or Gov. Terry McAuliffe) that depresses Democratic turnout, or some event or message that juices Republican interest.
For the former, the most Gillespie can do is hope. But he does have some say in the latter. With the right appeal, he could raise Republican turnout and increase his odds of winning. While the substance of Gillespie’s campaign is bog-standard Republicanism—tax cuts and deregulation—he has landed on a message that could bring Republican voters to the polls. And in the age of Trump, it’s a familiar one: white racial fear and resentment.
“MS-13 is a menace, yet Ralph Northam voted in favor of sanctuary cities that let dangerous illegal immigrants back on the street, increasing the threat of MS-13,” says the narrator in a recent ad from the Gillespie campaign, her words interspersed with images of Northam, MS-13’s motto, and a group of tattooed men, presented as gang members but who were actually inmates in an El Salvador prison.
A similar ad begins with an even starker message. “MS-13’s motto is kill, rape, control,” says the narrator, against an image of a hooded figure holding a baseball bat in a darkened home. “Ralph Northam, weak on MS-13, putting Virginia families at risk.” Yet another television spot begins by asking viewers, “Who will keep your family safe?” before blasting Northam as indifferent to the threat of gang violence from “illegal immigrants.” These ads, which debuted in central and southwestern Virginia (the most Trump-friendly parts of the state), are grossly misleading. Their main claim, that Northam voted for “sanctuary cities,” distorts his tie-breaking vote as lieutenant governor against a bill to ban them. That bill subsequently passed the state Senate after a second vote but was vetoed by McAuliffe. Thus far, there are no sanctuary cities in Virginia.
The Gillespie ads specifically focused on MS-13 both cite a Washington Post story on the gang, which is responsible for violence in Virginia and other states. But Gillespie overstates the extent of that violence and paints Hispanic immigrants with a broad brush. That same article notes that “only a small fraction of these youths are involved in gang violence.”
Trump’s fearmongering about Hispanic immigrants was an important part of his political appeal—on average, Trump voters held more negative views toward immigrants and immigration, and those views were tied strongly to vote choice. If turnout is crucial to Gillespie’s chances, then these ads are clearly meant to energize Republican voters by appealing to those fears and resentments.
But immigration isn’t the only vector for this approach. At the same time that Gillespie released these advertisements, the Virginia Republican Party sent a new mailer, approved by Gillespie, that accused Northam of wanting to “tear down history while making life easier for illegal immigrants.” The “history” in question are the Confederate monuments that mark the Virginia landscape, from the equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville—focal point in August for a violent gathering of neo-Nazis and white supremacists—to Monument Avenue in Richmond, which is lined with massive memorials to the Confederate cause. Those statues, placed at the dawn of the Jim Crow era, were built to celebrate white rule over the South and mark black subjugation. Far from a neutral “history,” they represent a tendentious and exclusionary form of historical memory that both glorifies the Confederacy and obscures its aims.
Seeking a better understanding of the state’s history, Virginians in Charlottesville and Richmond have begun an effort to either remove or recontextualize the statues, bringing about a backlash with unmistakably racist overtones. That backlash took its clearest electoral form in the person of Corey Stewart, an aggressively pro-Trump Republican who staked his campaign for governor on anti-immigrant sentiment and the defense of Confederate monuments. That campaign, which ran in the Republican primary, nearly derailed Gillespie, who eked out a victory against Stewart, winning with roughly 4,000 votes to spare.
Gillespie’s close call almost certainly informed his choice to run with racial demagoguery, even if it alienates moderate voters in the Northern Virginia suburbs who are key to Republican statewide success. His calculus, the inverse of the traditional call to move to the center, is straightforward: What he might lose in their support, he’ll make up by bringing the most pro-Trump voters to the polls.
How will this ultimately play out? Virginia was a Hillary state, and Gillespie, again, is well behind Northam in the race for the governor’s mansion. But like most off-year elections, this is a low-turnout contest, which makes it unpredictable. A surge of Trump voters could make the difference.
The problem is that Gillespie’s message isn’t quite the same as Trump’s. In his campaign, the president offered the full wages of whiteness: economic security (in the form of a welfare chauvinism that promised benefits for whites and exclusion for all others) and the restoration of white racial hegemony. These twin pillars helped him attract a critical slice of voters who backed social spending but resented blacks, Muslims, and immigrants. Gillespie has little substance to offer beyond tax cuts, spending cuts, and promises of fantastical growth. His concessions to white racial entitlement are largely symbolic: a promise to elevate and affirm the cultural status of white Virginians, and not much else.
Because of the quirks of its off-year gubernatorial contests, Virginia may not be representative of the national mood. But the success or failure of Gillespie’s gambit will help resolve a question about Trump-style backlash politics. Is it just racist fear and animus that brings these white voters to the polls, or is it that and the promise of entitlement? This might appear to be an intellectual exercise, but the answer matters. If it’s the former, then come 2020, Trump can pull from his playbook of demagoguery with similar success. But if it’s the latter, then Trump has a problem: He may have promised the government’s help, but he hasn’t delivered.