When it comes to money and politics, Gillespie is a player at the highest level. Together with Karl Rove, Gillespie capitalized on the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision to form the second-largest super PAC of 2012, American Crossroads, and the largest “dark money” 501(c)4 organization, Crossroads GPS.
Pre-Trump, Gillespie would have rejected “the working-class, populist sensibility that is the beating heart of the Republican Party right now,” as Laura Ingraham told The Times last week. To quote from a 2002 profile I wrote when I was a reporter for The Washington Post, Gillespie personified
a bipartisan culture shift in Washington, in which influence-peddlers don’t have to limit themselves to one, two or even three high-profile roles.
As a prominent member of Washington’s revolving-door community, Gillespie served not only as a top staffer in the administration of George W. Bush, but also as chairman of the Republican National Committee.
In 2009, Gillespie created Ed Gillespie Strategies to become what’s known in the trade as a shadow lobbyist — someone who is a strategist, a tactician and an influence peddler who capitalizes on lacunae in the law to avoid registering as a lobbyist while providing guidance to corporations and trade associations.
With that background in mind, let’s take a look at the current Virginia gubernatorial campaign.
Before the Republican primary last June, Gillespie was running as the leader of the Republican establishment in Virginia, aloof from the turmoil in the Trump wing of the party.
Gillespie’s campaign boasted of “support from 67 of 87 Republican members of the General Assembly, more than 1,250 coalition members across 35 different coalition groups.” He avoided any reference to Donald Trump and his campaign spokesman promised, in early June, that he would reject pressure to go negative: “Ed will continue to run a positive campaign.”
In a state where Trump currently has a 60-34 unfavorable rating and which Hillary Clinton carried 49.8-44.4 in 2016 — and where the incumbent governor and both senators are Democrats — Gillespie wanted to keep Trump at arm’s length. At first, his strategy appeared to be working. The RealClearPolitics average of the five polls taken just before the June primary had Gillespie ahead by 20.8 points.
But just like the polls that called the presidential election for Hillary Clinton, the pre-primary polls in Virginia underestimated the pro-Trump vote and failed to anticipate the populist groundswell in the state.
Gillespie’s main opponent in the primary was a Tea Party activist named Corey Stewart who is the chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors. He is also a bombastic Trump loyalist, who was widely dismissed as a loudmouth with no serious support in the state’s staid Republican establishment. Stewart did not shy away from calling Gillespie a “cuckservative” — a term of opprobrium from the lexicon of the alt-right and he warned that a Gillespie victory “would mean that the Trump revolution stopped in 2016.” Worse, in Stewart’s view, a ticket headed by Gillespie would alienate voters who
are sick and tired of the wishy-washy, weak-kneed, establishment Republicans who don’t stand for anything.
Running against a primary opponent dismissed by mainstream Republicans, Gillespie barely survived, winning by 1.24 percentage points, 43.74-42.50 (a marginal third candidate won the rest).
Gillespie got the message loud and clear: The populist right-wing was much stronger than he had thought. If a substantial number of the 155,466 voters for Stewart stayed home on Nov. 7, the Gillespie campaign was dead.
To coordinate his campaign in the coal counties of Southwest Virginia, Gillespie hired Jack Morgan, a part-time preacher and a personal defense/security consultant – “The threat is real & the time is now. We will prepare you for the unthinkable” — who had served as a top aide to Stewart. Morgan warned during the primary that
it would be a shame — that I put in all the time I did, and all of you folks put in all the time you did, and we all across America worked as hard as we could to send Donald Trump to Washington, D.C., to drain the swamp, and send a lobbyist to Richmond.
Gillespie also adopted Trump’s tactics. In September, he began to run a series of attack ads against his Democratic opponent, Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam, that accused Northam of protecting illegal immigrant gang members.
Northam is a physician, a soft-spoken native of Virginia’s Eastern Shore, a graduate of Virginia Military Institute. He served eight years as a doctor in the Army, including during Operation Desert Storm, rising to the rank of major. He now has a practice in pediatric neurology in Norfolk and volunteers as a medical director for the Edmarc Hospice for Children in Portsmouth, where he cares for terminally ill children.
Despite all this or perhaps in part because of it, Gillespie released what became known as his “Kill, Rape, Oppress” television ads, the first of which shows what purports to be a hooded member of the MS-13 gang wielding a baseball bat in an abandoned building, as a narrator says:
Northam cast the deciding vote in favor of sanctuary cities that let illegal immigrants who commit crimes back on the street, increasing the threat of MS-13.
In fact, there are no sanctuary cities in Virginia.
More recently, at the end of October, Gillespie raised the stakes with an ad linking Northam to a convicted sex offender:
Last year, Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam instituted the automatic restoration of rights for violent felons and sex offenders, making it easier for them to obtain firearms and allowing them to serve on juries. One of these felons, John Bowen, had his rights restored two months after being found with one of the largest child pornography collections in Virginia’s history.
Bowen, according to The Virginia Pilot, was convicted in 2001 on one count of aggravated sexual battery and one count of “indecent liberties” with a minor. He was sentenced to a year in prison. On June 6, 2017, after pleading guilty to possession of child pornography, Bowen was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Six weeks before Bowen was sentenced, on April 27th, McAuliffe announced that he had restored voting and other rights to 156,221 Virginians who had been convicted of felonies and had completed their sentences.
In an exceptionally sharply-worded editorial, “Gillespie’s ads are poisonous to Virginia and the nation,” The Washington Post pointed out that not only does Gillespie himself support restoration of felons’ rights, but that
Technically, it is true that Mr. McAuliffe’s policy, which Mr. Northam backs, made it easier for Mr. Bowen to obtain firearms, serve on juries and vote. In fact, there were no elections in the 41-day window during which he regained his rights, and as a former felon he would have needed a judge’s approval to obtain a gun. Nor was there time for him to be summoned and serve on a jury. Mr. Gillespie, determined to inflame and distract voters, could not be bothered with such details. Once known as a pragmatist and a centrist, Mr. Gillespie increasingly has been turning in his political advertising to President Trump’s brand of divisive, scaremongering politics.
Trump did in fact endorse Gillespie via Twitter on Oct. 5:
Ralph Northam, who is running for Governor of Virginia, is fighting for the violent MS-13 killer gangs & sanctuary cities. Vote Ed Gillespie!
Ed Gillespie will turn the really bad Virginia economy #’s around, and fast. Strong on crime, he might even save our great statues/heritage!
This tweet signaled to the president’s fervent loyalists that Gillespie was on board the Trump train on the gamut of hot button issues from Confederate monuments to women’s rights to immigrant rights to minority rights to criminal justice matters like felons’ rights, clemency and commutation.
For Republicans, the crucial element in restoring voting rights for felons involves African Americans, a strong Democratic constituency, not pedophiles, who are scarce. Of the beneficiaries of McAuliffe’s restoration of rights, 46 percent were African-American. Nationwide, an estimated 2.6 million African-Americans cannot vote because of criminal disenfranchisement laws.
John Feehery, a lobbyist who worked at Quinn Gillespie, wrote in an email that Trump’s support may hurt Gillespie in the suburbs around Washington, D.C., but it
helps immeasurably in the rest of the State. Thank to Trump’s endorsement, the places that Ed most needs to get excited will get excited. So this works out well for Gillespie.
Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, was more emphatic:
Let’s put it this way: If Trump weren’t supportive of Gillespie, it would drive a stake into the heart of Gillespie’s candidacy. It’s a fine line. Gillespie needs to be acceptable enough to the Trump voters so that they’ll actually show up to vote. Few will back Northam, so just getting them excited enough to cast a ballot is enough. Gillespie’s TV ad emphasis on immigration, crime, and commutations appears to have tipped the Trump base into Gillespie’s column — assisted by Trump’s supportive tweets. They’re not running to the polls like last year, but walking gets them there too.
In a last-minute development, the Latino Victory Fund, an independent “progressive political action committee with the mission of growing Latino political power,” began airing a pro-Northam television ad Monday on Spanish-language stations (and on YouTube) entitled “American Nightmare.” It shows a burly white man behind the wheel of a heavy duty pickup truck with a Confederate flag, a Gillespie sticker and a “Don’t Tread On Me” license plate chasing Hispanic and Muslim children in a suburban neighborhood, as the announcer asks:
Is this what Donald Trump and Ed Gillespie mean by “the American dream”?
The Gillespie campaign immediately sought to turn the commercial to its advantage. On Tuesday, Gillespie told Fox News:
This attack is not just an attack on my supporters, who are good, decent, hardworking Virginians who love their neighbors, it is an attack on all Virginians.
David Turner, communications director for the Northam campaign, countered:
Ed Gillespie has spent upwards of $9 million making obvious racial appeals. Ed Gillespie has stoked fear among Hispanic immigrants. He turned on the stove and now the water is boiling over.
But, Turner added,
Ralph Northam would not have run this ad and believes Virginians deserve civility, not escalation. Dr. Northam is committed to unifying Virginians appeal to their hopes, rather than dividing them through fear.
The ad was pulled late in the day on Oct. 31.
As the contest enters its closing days, polls suggest that Gillespie is within striking distance of Northam. Northam holds a modest 3.6 point lead in the RealClearPolitics average of the seven most recent surveys.
In the kind of role reversal that is not uncommon in politics, one of those with the most riding on Gillespie’s coattails is Trump himself. A Republican victory in Virginia would demonstrate that the president has not become a liability in off-year elections. In addition, given Gillespie’s post-primary strategic shift to Trumpian themes, a Republican win would serve to demonstrate that the issues of immigration, crime and race continue to win elections, even in a state where Democrats have been thought to have the upper hand.
If painting Northam as a friend to violent Salvadoran gangs and pedophiles seems like a stretch, that’s American politics in 2017. We used to think that however grotesque they were, there was still a difference between overt declarations and explicit racial politics on one hand and dog whistles and implicit racial politics on the other. That distinction seems to be fading, if it is not gone altogether. Whether the Gillespie-Trump brand of Republicanism sells to the Virginia electorate this year will tell us a lot about where American politics stand a year after the election of President Trump — and the outcome will also offer tantalizing hints about where we are headed in 2018 and 2020.