The motto of the gang MS-13—“Kill, Rape, Control”—pulsates on the screen, before cutting to a graffiti portrait of Ralph Northam, the Democratic nominee for governor of Virginia. Then a warning: Northam cast a “deciding vote” in favor of sanctuary cities, ushering in a wave of MS-13 terror in Virginia. A separate ad features heavily tattooed Latino men who are meant to represent MS-13 gang members. If you believe the ads, Northam would empty the state’s prisons and open the country’s borders to let foreign felons wreak havoc in Falls Church and MacLean. The ads provoked comparisons to the infamous Willie Horton ad, which arguably helped George H. W. Bush defeat Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential election.
Those tattooed men were, in fact, prisoners in El Salvador. Similarly, there are no sanctuary cities in Virginia. This rhetoric would be shocking coming from any candidate, even in 2017. But the ads are particularly notable because they support Ed Gillespie, a former chair of the Republican National Committee who is synonymous with the Republican establishment of the last 30 years. Gillespie—well-monied, well-connected, and very powerful—represents the exact establishment that Donald Trump ran against in 2016. And now he’s the Republican nominee for governor in Virginia, running a campaign with distinct Trumpian themes.
Gillespie was a reluctant convert to Trumpism. In 2014, he narrowly lost a Senate race while running a pro-immigration, pro-growth campaign, along the lines of the autopsy report that Republicans produced after Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012. In the 2017 primary, he came across as a man out of time: He avoided cultural and social issues, emphasized a large, across-the-board tax cut, and produced ads in both Spanish and Korean. But he also nearly lost to Corey Stewart, a local firebrand who was too radical even for the Trump campaign and ran primarily on protecting Confederate monuments in the state. Gillespie’s narrow victory over Stewart means he now faces an unenviable task for any politician: He must win both Virginia’s suburban moms and its unemployed coal miners.
To accomplish this, he’s grafted Trumpism onto bog-standard Republicanism. In a debate with Northam on September 19, he stuck to his main arguments about fiscal responsibility and the need for tax cuts. At the same time, his campaign has quietly pushed ads and flyers emphasizing immigration and Confederate monuments. This two-pronged strategy may not deliver the victory he seeks, but it does represent what is becoming a new normal in Republican politics. As Election Day approaches, Gillespie’s campaign has largely abandoned the tax cut that was once the centerpiece of his platform, pivoting to a strategy of fearmongering and stoking cultural divisions. In this environment, abandoning the Graham-Cassidy health care reform bill, which Gillespie reluctantly did (before sheepishly walking back his opposition), is considered acceptable. But backing away from hardline immigration policies or the debate over Confederate monuments is not.
With less than 40 days before the election, Gillespie is trailing Northam by a consistent but not insurmountable margin: four to six points. Virginia is an increasingly blue state that Hillary Clinton won handily in 2016. Trump’s approval rating is underwater—hovering around 35 percent—and Virginia has historically elected a governor representing the opposite party of the president in its off-year elections. Gillespie has to find a way to appeal to northern suburban voters, while holding on to the GOP base.
“Gillespie’s trying to solve a basic geometry problem,” pollster Quentin Kidd told the New Republic. “In order to have any chance of winning, he’s got to be appealing to a median voter in Virginia. If you put a demographic profile to that person, it’s probably a college-educated woman in suburban northern Virginia who has a couple of kids in school, is a professional woman by day and an overworked woman by night. Not very political, not very partisan, is just interested in the basic bread-and-butter things from government that everyone else is. They want good schools, safe streets, good streets to drive on. Gillespie’s got to appeal to that person to have a chance of winning, but he also has to appeal to the Corey Stewart wing of his party.”
This is where the MS-13 ads come in. Gillespie is attempting to undercut Northam’s advantage in the suburbs of Northern Virginia by arguing that his policies would introduce violent crime to affluent neighborhoods. Meanwhile, for Stewart voters, there are abundant racial dog-whistles that communicate that Latinos are predisposed to gang violence. Another ad, focusing on Northam’s support for “ban the box” legislation—which would curb the state’s ability to ask about potential employees’ criminal histories—depicts him as an enabler of pedophilia. For voters the message is obvious: Vote for Northam and you endanger your neighborhoods and your own children.
The monuments issue has been just as vital to the campaign, particularly after Charlottesville. The violence of August 12 exposed the darker and angrier currents running through Republican politics. Gillespie himself seemed to recognize this, recoiling from the violence and emphasizing that monuments should be placed in “proper historical context.” But as a recent Christopher Newport University poll shows, a plurality of Virginia voters believe that the monuments shouldn’t be removed. Virginia’s Republican Party has responded with a mailer arguing that Gillespie, not Northam, is the true defender of the state’s Confederate heritage.
This is partly a reflection of another political reality: The state party is more Stewart’s party than Gillespie’s. Virginia’s General Assembly skews Tea Party. The Virginia GOP’s official Twitter account recently accused Northam of betraying his “family’s heritage” for supporting the removal of Confederate monuments—and rather than distancing himself from this attack, Gillespie has adopted it. He hired Jack Morgan, who ran Trump’s campaign operation in the state’s conservative southwest region and who once called critics of Confederate monuments “pure communists trying to come after America again.”
Some people think this strategy is a mistake. After Gillespie narrowly escaped Stewart in the primary, former John Kasich aide John Weaver told The Washington Post: “Ed is going to have a difficult enough time winning with Trump in the White House. Adding Trump’s bullying, foolish staff—who focus on narrow casting and messaging to the lowest common denominator—would dramatically decrease Ed’s chances in a state, as a Republican, where you have to build a broad coalition to win.”
But Gillespie realizes that you have to do more than hype tax cuts to win as a Republican in 2017. In debates, Gillespie is far, far closer to Mitt Romney than Donald Trump. But his campaign has often taken the opposite tone, a recognition of what is required for Republicans to hold together their base in a post-Trump world. The D.C. insider is an abhorrent species to the state’s rural communities. As a Republican, Gillespie will still probably win these areas, but he also can’t afford much of an enthusiasm gap. He needs to motivate voters in coal country, and thus hopes that fear will prick their heels.
In a statement, his campaign doubled down on these themes. “Ralph Northam made sanctuary cities an issue when he voted against banning them, and now his campaign is upset that we are highlighting legitimate policy differences while he does nothing but launch character smears against Ed,” the campaign said. “MS-13 is a growing threat, and Ed has a plan to combat gang violence that will make Virginians safer, especially those in the immigrant community most vulnerable to MS-13 violence.”
Virginia is something of an outlier in the national political scene. It is the only former Confederate state to vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and this deviation occurred in part because of another: Clinton won the Virginia suburbs, even though Trump largely captured suburban votes nationwide.
But the state is also representative of broader patterns in the country. “Over the last decade, Virginia has mirrored a national trend,” writes Simon Van Zuylen-Wood in a profile of Gillespie. “While the state has grown more liberal overall, its conservative pockets have become more rabid.” Increasingly diverse, the state has voted for the Democratic candidate for president in the last three elections. Yet it’s deeply gerrymandered. (Gillespie, it’s worth noting, is one of the architects of the GOP’s infamous REDMAP redistricting program.) The state general assembly skews far-right. And though it’s home to three of the country’s wealthiest counties, its rural interior still suffers high rates of poverty and infant mortality.
Gillespie’s campaign is perhaps best understood as an attempt to deal with a dilemma that will soon be familiar to practically every Republican candidate vying for positions at the state and federal levels in 2018 and beyond. Gillespie’s strategy has been to build a kind of Frankenstein’s monster of a campaign, in which he outsources the dirty work to ads and mailers while personally playing the role of a safe alternative to Trump in debates and other public appearances.
Whether or not it will work, his campaign reveals Trump’s enduring impact on the GOP. It will be increasingly difficult for the party to distance itself from Trump’s bold identitarianism, since Trump made clear that the GOP now runs on cultural and racial issues, not economic ones. Ed Gillespie wanted to run a campaign based on a giant tax cut. Instead he’s been cutting ads about MS-13 and Confederate monuments.