The Virginia gubernatorial race has finally succumbed to the full scope of negativity everyone probably expected. It was only a matter of time. Say goodbye to the genteel sport of Commonwealth politics, and say hello to the new political age everyone is currently suffering through. Not that Commonwealth politics have always been polite.
The last gubernatorial election season also saw it’s share of “nastiness,” according to a Time Magazine article from 2013: “A poll released Wednesday by the Democrat-leaning Public Policy Polling found both candidates suffering from underwater favorability ratings.” The article went on to say, “A day later, when both men spoke at a luncheon in Richmond about government transparency, they spent their time attacking each other. Cuccinelli challenged McAulliffe to 15 debates, instead of the agreed upon five… McAulliffe harped on Cuccinelli’s failure to disclose gifts and stock holdings in a Virginia dietary supplement company.”
Stock holdings in a dietary supplement company and conflict over the number of debates – the good old days. When Time Magazine felt comfortable saying, “It was just another day in what is shaping up to be the ugliest campaign in the country this year.” That was before the age of President Trump ushered in the political climate where Ed Gillespie, the Republican candidate for governor, could release his now-notorious “kill, rape, control” ad linking Democratic candidate Ralph Northam to the international gang MS-13.
The ad, replete with images of menacing tattooed gang members, is an obvious racist dog whistle. It was developed not only to fear-monger in suburban and rural spaces by trying to make Northam look weak on crime, but also as a way to signal Northam’s supposed support for sanctuary cities. Yet according to Randolph Macon Professor Rich Meagher, who wrote an editorial for RVA Mag on this very issue, “What we call sanctuary cities are not actually a real thing.” He went on to say, “Different localities commit to different levels of cooperation with immigration authorities throughout the Commonwealth.” Furthermore, according to the monitoring agency WOLA, gang violence conducted by MS-13 only represents one percent of the total levels of gang violence throughout the US and Puerto Rico – making the ad’s argument spurious at best.
Nonetheless, Gillespie followed up this opening salvo with another shot across the bow in a three minute video released on Facebook yesterday, wherein he complains that Governor Terry McAuliffe’s felon rights restoration program released a known sex offender. The video then pivots to Northam speaking about the success of the felon rights restoration program, while at the same time highlighting potential dangers with restoring felon rights such as their ability to sit on a jury, vote, or purchase a firearm. Northam spokesman David Turner responded to this attack ad from Gillespie by saying, “Since he has no positive ideas, he’s resorted to lying about Dr. Northam.” Turner concluded his response by saying, “It is a new low for him to accuse a pediatrician and children’s hospice medical director of favoring felons who have hurt children.”
The restoration of felon rights has been marquee legislation for McAuliffe’s administration and has been lauded as a success in the fight against the worst excesses of Virginia’s criminal justice system – one that sees communities of color disenfranchised at a disproportionate rate. The U.S. Sentencing Project specifies that “more than one in five African-Americans in Virginia are disenfranchised.” As with the “kill, rape, control” attack ad, Gillespie is sowing fear and being purposefully antagonistic to play on the worst racist fears of his suburban and rural base – a tried and true Trump strategy.
Democrats are now fighting back with campaign content of their own. Content which specifically links Gillespie and Trump to white nationalism and white supremacy. A Northam campaign mailer, reported on this morning by the Richmond Times Dispatch, said, “On Tuesday, November 7th, Virginia Gets To Stand Up…To Hate,” and shows both Trump and Gillespie hovering over the torchlit rally which took place the Friday night before the now infamous Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville on August 12 – a torchlit procession that saw young white men chant “Jews will not replace us” and “blood and soil.”
According to the Washington Post, the backside of the mailer shows Northam, LT Governor Candidate Justin Fairfax, and incumbent Attorney General Mark Herring, with the message, “This is our chance to stand up to Trump, Gillespie, and hate.” While Gillespie did condemn the events in Charlottesville, saying, “Having a right to spew vile hate does not make it right,” the tone of his attack ads betrays a critical double standard. This is even more obvious when, only a day after the attack ad on felon rights restoration, Gillespie’s campaign manager released the following statement in response the mailer: “This is an ugly political attack that has no place in our Commonwealth’s political discourse. Ralph Northam should be ashamed to have approved such a hateful mail piece.”
Whoever gets elected, Virginia has now entered into the political age that has come to define modern America. What kind of damage this leaves in its path remains to be seen. Yet this kind of discourse not only betrays a lack of the civility needed to deal with the critical issues facing the Commonwealth, but continues to stress the social fabric that connects communities, cities, and regions throughout Virginia. Given this level of vitriol and its unintended consequences, the next governor will certainly have his work cut out for him putting the pieces back together again.