Ed Gillespie, the Republican candidate for Governor, could not have imagined a worse time for the Mueller indictments to come down. Special prosecutor Robert Mueller hit Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and his business partner, Rick Gates, with 12 different indictments. One of the most headline-grabbing of those charges was “Conspiracy against the United States.” As a result, one might wonder if the arrest of Republican operatives for crimes against America would make the election of Democrat Ralph Northam for Governor that much easier.
However, Virginians are never that predictable.
Republicans and President Trump have tried to distance themselves from Manafort, the campaign, and the election. They are sticking to the talking points that Manafort’s crimes happened long before he joined the campaign and that he only served as Trump’s campaign chairman from June-August 2016, leaving the campaign after his past history with the Ukraine and Russia was revealed. Rick Gates, a protege of Paul Manafort, was around much longer, however. Gates, a Richmond resident, actually stayed with the campaign, and then went on to facilitate the transition after Trump was settling into the White House.
While the core base of Trump’s supporters remain with the president, Republicans across the country are starting to lose faith in their national party. Not only is it embarrassing for them to see the behavior coming out of the White House, but the Republican-held Congress has yet to pass any of the major legislation that they have promised to the rank and file.
Nonetheless, citizens know how to separate national politics from their state and local politics. This presents a challenge for Democrats in our gubernatorial race.
Just as an anecdotal example, I recently had a conversation with a friend that has been a conservative his entire life. He refused to vote for Trump, yet when I asked him whom he is voting for in the gubernatorial election, he came back with a quick “Gillespie.” I then proceeded to inquire why he made that decision in the current climate and he boiled it down to one simple statement:
“He’s the Republican.”
With Mueller charging GOP operatives with a potentially wide range of crimes against America, one could imagine that Northam’s momentum and minimal lead in the polls would continue to grow. Regardless, if there is one thing we have learned throughout the years, it is never to underestimate Virginia Republicans.
In the 2014 Senate race between the incumbent Mark Warner and Republican Ed Gillespie, Warner was dominating Gillespie in the polls. The final RealClearPolitics average had Warner ahead by 9.7 percent, and polls as late as that September had the incumbent up by more than 20 points. But what ended up happening? Gillespie lost to Warner by less than 1 point – only a 17,000 vote difference with over 2 million votes being cast.
Northam is also fighting his own political blunder with an ad being released showing minority children running away from a truck that sported an Ed Gillespie sticker. The ad was removed Tuesday after a terrorist attack in New York City was carried out by a pickup truck.
Northam addressed the ad the next day in an on-air interview, where he said, “This group that put out this ad – it was not from our campaign – I wouldn’t have put that ad out, but the ads that Mr. Gillespie has put out have provoked this hate and fear mongering, and so these individuals have responded, and they did it in a way that perhaps wasn’t what I would do, but it certainly provoked fear in them.”
Over the course of the election, Gillespie has been trying to equate Northam to a gang sympathizer and a supporter of sanctuary cities. Nor has he missed a chance to point out that Northam was the tie-breaking vote in the Virginia Senate on the sanctuary cities bill. These messaging strategies clearly piggy-back off of the president’s hateful rhetoric as a means of invoking fear in Virginians – the very same methods that Trump used in the presidential election.
Gillespie has tried to keep the president at arm’s length, even with Trump sending out random tweets showing his support of Gillespie. On October 26, the president tweeted: “Ed Gillespie will turn the really bad Virginia economy #’s around, and fast. Strong on crime, he might even save our great statues/heritage!“
Gillespie, the former Republican National Committee chairman has always pushed for more outreach to minorities from the GOP. Now it seems that he is abandoning those values in order to stay competitive in the election. Yet Robert Mueller’s investigation is moving faster than expected, and that has potential unintended consequences for Gillespie and Virginia Republicans.
The White House is in a state of fear. A Republican-controlled Congress has failed to move any of the major legislation that they have been promising for eight years. The indictments handed down by Mueller have GOP leadership rightfully frightened that they could lose their majority in the House at midterms. How that matters to Virginians on election day remains to be seen. One thing is for sure – Gillespie will compete until the final vote is counted.