In mid September, the campaign of Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie released a funny YouTube video to promote his transportation plan. A dashboard camera shows Gillespie at the wheel of a light SUV, with former GOP governor Bob McDonnell in the back seat.
McDonnell hectors Gillespie from the back, reminding him that he signed a law requiring seat belts, telling him he’s going too fast, then too slow. Then the men debate whether a right turn on red is permitted at that intersection. At a stoplight, the former governor teases Gillespie: “What shade of green are you waiting for, Ed?” The video ends with Gillespie pledging “to get Virginia moving again — not just our economy, but our traffic.”
McDonnell’s cameo is a little surprising, given that he and his wife were convicted of corruption in federal court in 2014. Two years later, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the conviction, concluding that while McDonnell’s acceptance of gifts from a wealthy maker of dietary supplements was “distasteful,” the “government’s boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute” was not lawful.
But McDonnell’s playfully hassling visage in Gillespie’s YouTube video is a reminder of better times for Virginia Republicans — and a signal that Gillespie hopes to emulate McDonnell’s success of eight years ago.
“People are looking for solutions,” Gillespie says in an interview with National Review. “I’ve released 17 specific plans to address their concerns on everything from K–12 education and higher education to traffic, jobs, the opioid epidemic. I mean, I’ve got plans for everything, and that’s what people are hungry for.”
“In most ways, 2017 is a return to what we know works in Virginia — a focus on kitchen-table issues,” says Garren Shipley, the Virginia communications director for the Republican National Committee. The slogan “‘Bob’s for Jobs’ worked for a good reason: The number-one concern of most people is keeping their paychecks coming in and hopefully growing.”
In 2009, the state GOP thought it had cracked the code after McDonnell crushed his Democratic opponent by almost 20 points. Democrats had strenuously tried to make the race a referendum on McDonnell’s graduate thesis, written in 1989 at Pat Robertson’s Regent University in Virginia Beach, in which he criticized feminists, working women, and homosexuality. McDonnell insisted that his views had changed since then, and in speeches, interviews, and ads, he relentlessly focused on job creation. This was around the worst times of the Great Recession, and Virginia voters gravitated to McDonnell’s emphasis on good schools, curtailing regulations, and building new roads to reduce traffic. (That Gillespie’s campaign video, eight years later, makes similar pledges to frustrated commuters indicates the difficulty of mitigating traffic congestion.)
The McDonnell playbook appeared simple and workable: focus on economic and quality-of-life issues and be nice. As one Virginia GOP consultant put it, the way for Republicans to win statewide was just to “get our base to show up and don’t scare the Fairfax County soccer moms.”
Executing that playbook has proven surprisingly difficult. Virginia Republicans haven’t won a statewide race since 2009 and have come close only twice. Ken Cuccinelli, the attorney general under McDonnell, came within three points of beating Terry McAuliffe in the 2013 gubernatorial race, a much closer result than the final polls had suggested. In 2014, Gillespie came within a percentage point of a monumental upset against incumbent Democratic senator Mark Warner. One veteran of that campaign characterizes the close finish as being “one stomach-virus outbreak at a Chipotle away from winning.”
With the gubernatorial contest in New Jersey long having been expected to be a Democratic rout, the Virginia governor’s race will be the first true statewide test of the parties in the Trump era. Virginia is one of the few states where Hillary Clinton won more votes than Barack Obama did four years earlier. A good chunk of that increased margin came in Fairfax County, the state’s most populous, a stretch of suburban D.C. where Obama beat Romney by about 108,000 votes; Hillary Clinton beat Trump by 197,000.
But even if Trumpism has limited appeal to the state’s electorate as a whole, quite a few Virginia Republicans like it and have embraced its local personification in the form of Corey Stewart, a member of the board of supervisors of Prince William County. Stewart built his reputation in 2007 by pushing through a measure to deny certain county services to illegal immigrants and to direct the police to enforce immigration laws. In the years since, he has called for mass deportation of all illegal immigrants, labeled Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe a “cuck,” and called Gillespie a “cuckservative.”
In March, Stewart declared that “the most important thing in this campaign” was the preservation of Charlottesville’s Robert E. Lee statue — the one that later became the centerpiece of an alt-right white-nationalist rally and the flashpoint for a violent riot and an apparent act of murder by a white supremacist. As for the politicians who support removing Confederate statues, Stewart has compared them to ISIS.
Stewart’s Trump-style rhetoric almost worked; he won 42.5 percent in the primary, to Gillespie’s 43.7 percent. In mid July, Stewart announced his plan to run against Senator Tim Kaine in 2018 and specifically promised “a very vicious, ruthless race.”
In hindsight, it should be noted that Gillespie could have spent more money in the primary and that he was determined not to drift too far to the right, conceding a certain portion of primary voters to his rival. The wonky Gillespie, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, would never have made a particularly authentic bomb-thrower.
Liberal groups allied with the Democratic nominee for governor, Ralph Northam, are pursuing a familiar and cynical strategy in the closing weeks of the campaign. They insist there’s no significant difference between Gillespie and Trump, or even between Gillespie and the white nationalists who marched in Charlottesville in August.
In late September, Gillespie’s campaign unveiled a new ad focusing on the ruthless international gang MS-13 and sanctuary cities. After a series of television-news snippets about MS-13 crimes in the northern-Virginia area, a female narrator warns: “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. Ralph Northam’s policies are dangerous.”
Lizet Ocampo of the progressive advocacy organization People for the American Way responded by declaring, “Ed Gillespie’s decision to smear all undocumented people as murderers and rapists is the clearest example yet that he’s copying Donald Trump’s hateful, bigoted playbook. Just like Donald Trump, he’s fanning the flames of hatred.”
Tom Steyer, the founder and president of the environmental-advocacy group NextGen America, went even further: “This ad is the latest example of the hate-filled, fear-mongering campaign that Ed Gillespie has run. Equating sanctuary cities and the immigrant community with the MS-13 gang is coded racism and plays into the hands of the white supremacists that marched through Charlottesville last month.”
Being compared to white supremacists would make some candidates bristle or offer an outraged denial, but Gillespie uses a bit of rhetorical ju-jitsu to contend that those defending sanctuary cities don’t actually care about immigrant communities. “Immigrants themselves are the ones most likely to be victimized by MS-13 and people here illegally who commit violent crime,” Gillespie says. “I want to protect all of our communities. There have been eight MS-13-related murders here in northern Virginia since November.”
“What’s northern Virginia?” Laura Ingraham scoffed in 2015, pointing to the common wisdom that it’s a problem for Virginia Republicans. “All immigrant populations have come and moved into northern Virginia. . . . We have mass resettlement of Central America and Mexico in northern Virginia. The northern-Virginia problem for the GOP and for politics in Virginia is obvious.”
Except . . . Gillespie lost Fairfax County by only 54,000 votes in the 2014 Senate race, and McDonnell narrowly won the county in 2009. It’s fair to wonder whether “changing demographics” is a convenient excuse for subpar campaigns and candidates.
The race appears set to be a nail-biter. Three polls in late September showed a tie or a razor-thin Northam lead, while a fourth showed a ten-point lead for the Democrat. A Republican-leaning consultant working to elect Gillespie says the internal polls are in line with most of the public ones.
A Northam loss would deeply disappoint Democrats; the much-touted “Resistance” to President Trump didn’t show up in special congressional elections in Kansas, Montana, or Georgia, and the Virginia elections were, until the controversy over the MS-13 commercial, a low-key affair. The Washington Post editorial board actually paused to praise the two candidates for their civility and focus on substance, declaring, “The Virginia governor’s race is how politics should be.”
There’s one other potential far-reaching consequence of this year’s gubernatorial race. Terry McAuliffe, the current Democratic governor, isn’t hiding his interest in running for president in 2020. Virginia’s Republican-controlled state legislature blocked most of his most liberal initiatives, so if McAuliffe does run, he will likely do so on his record, touting himself as a job creator. Virginia’s unemployment rate hit a 40-year low in 2016, and total wages and salaries in Virginia have increased by 12.2 percent since January 2014, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
But Gillespie points to gloomier data. A report by the state chamber of commerce and Old Dominion University concluded that the state is “experiencing relatively slow economic growth,” with the size of the labor force and labor-force participation falling. Slower-than-expected job growth in 2016 meant that state tax collections were $266 million lower than expected, delaying promised raises to state employees, teachers, college faculty, and some sheriff’s deputies. And in each of the past three years, more people moved out of Virginia than moved in. If Gillespie defeats Northam, skeptical Democratic presidential-primary voters may ask, Just how great was the McAuliffe era anyway, and why couldn’t he make a strong case for a Democratic successor?
The Virginia gubernatorial election will test whether Republicans can win this state with the McDonnell approach of focusing on kitchen-table issues and using amiable wonkiness to defuse accusations of extremism. If Gillespie loses, some Trump-friendly Republicans will no doubt conclude that northern Virginia’s increasing ethnic diversity and social progressivism have made the state unwinnable for Republicans and that, with nothing to lose, GOP candidates ought to let their angry, populist freak flag fly.
But if Gillespie wins, it will show that traditional pre-Trump Republicanism can still prevail in a purple state. And in some future cycle, Gillespie will be able to sit in the back seat of another car, telling some other future GOP gubernatorial candidate how to drive.