Opinion: Republican Candidate Ed Gillespie’s New Campaign Ad is Classic Racist Fear-Mongering

by | Sep 25, 2017 | OPINION

Last week brought us the worst political ad in Virginia and it wasn’t Dan Helmer. Apologies to RVAMag’s Political Director. He’s totally right about all the ways Dan Helmer’s ad was a bad idea, it’s just that this ad is even worse.

We now have the Republican candidate for Virginia Governor, Ed Gillespie to thank for this. On September 20, Gillespie released an ad attacking his opponent, Democratic Lt. Governor Ralph Northam.

In case you missed it, you can check it out here:

The ad argues that the international criminal organization, MS 13, threatens Virginia residents. Who’s at fault? Of course, Northam, who “voted in favor of sanctuary cities that let dangerous illegal immigrants back on the street, increasing the threat of MS 13.”

We’re used to political attack ads here in Virginia. The last gubernatorial race was one of the ugliest in recent memory. So is this ad really so bad?

It is. Let me unpack this ad point by point:

1. For starters, the “gang members” depicts in the ad are (1) not in Virginia, and (2) not even members of MS-13.

2. The campaign is using the photo in question without permission, just swiping it from an online Salvadoran newspaper. (In academia, we call that plagiarism.) Nevertheless, the campaign doubled-down by calling it “fair use”, which makes it seem like they’re performing a public service with their garbage campaign ad.

3. The ad ties gang violence to immigration, while most of the MS 13 violence has been committed by U.S. citizens – a fact that is known to most human rights organizations, while their core membership comprises only about one percent of all gang activity in the US – making this line of reasoning a red herring and racial dog whistle.

4. In the ad, Northam is blamed for casting the deciding vote on a Republican-backed bill that would ban ‘sanctuary cities’. Basically, the bill would prevent Virginia cities and counties from declaring themselves a ‘sanctuary’ for illegal immigrants. As a result, law enforcement wouldn’t necessarily be compelled to cooperate with federal immigration officers. But Northam’s vote was only “deciding” because a Republican voted against the bill  purely to set up Northam to cast the “tie breaker.”

(By the way, the Republicans later reintroduced the bill and passed it with no problems.)

5. What we call “Sanctuary cities” are not actually a real thing. Different localities commit to different levels of cooperation with immigration authorities throughout the Commonwealth. It’s complicated, but this bill that Northam supposedly cast the deciding vote for was mostly political theater, and was eventually vetoed by the Governor.

6. Worst of all, unsurprisingly, is the fact that the ad represents classic racist fear-mongering. Which is why it’s being compared the mother of all racist dog-whistles – the Willie Horton ad used in the 1988 presidential campaign. The ad is basically saying, “Thinking of voting for Ralph? The Mexican hordes are coming to assault your daughters.”

I’m not the only one noticing all this, obviously. The Northam campaign says that this ad shows just how desperate Gillespie is getting. They may be right.

This ad essentially backs up what I said last week in a story I wrote for ABC 8: Gillespie is the underdog in this race. What’s more, this ad shows that he knows it. He’s pursuing a classic underdog strategy: (1) turn out your base by appealing to their bread-and-butter issues and/or, as in this case, their worst instincts; (2) go negative.

And who knows? Maybe this is the best strategy, and one that might work; one lesson we learned last year is to never count out the appeal of racism for American voters.

But it’s a pretty ugly strategy to watch unfold. Gillespie may or may not be desperate, but this ad represents the worst tendencies of his campaign and his party. It should make you think twice about what he’d be like in office.


Rich Meagher

Rich Meagher

Rich Meagher teaches political science at Randolph-Macon College, and is the author of Local Politics Matters (Lantern Publishing and Media, 2020).

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