As we have suggested, Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie’s attempt to morph into a right-wing cultural warrior without losing support in voter-rich Northern Virginia is a losing strategy. The Post-Schar School poll provides the latest proof:
[Lt. Gov. Ralph] Northam leads Gillespie by 53 percent to 40 percent among likely voters, with 4 percent supporting Libertarian Cliff Hyra. The advantage is similar to a Post-Schar School poll this spring but larger than in other public polls of likely voters released over the past month, most of which found Northam up by single digits.
But the race is still fluid, with a sizable number of likely voters — one in four — saying they could change their mind before Nov. 7.
The telltale sign of a looming defeat is Gillespie’s terrible performance in Northern Virginia. “As has been the case in recent years, populous Northern Virginia is leaning heavily toward the Democrat. Northam garners 61 percent of voters in the D.C. suburbs and 55 percent in the exurbs, compared with 35 percent for Gillespie around D.C. and 33 percent in the exurbs, where Hyra peaks at 8 percent.” Depending on turnout, that deficit may total hundreds of thousands of votes, a margin that cannot be made up elsewhere in the state.
What’s more, Gillespie is running more than 20 points behind Northam (58 percent to 36 percent) in the Tidewater region, the second-most-populous area of the state with a large number of military voters (whom a Republican should be winning over handily).
Gillespie’s net favorable rating is 38 percent compared with his unfavorable rating of 37 percent. By contrast, 44 percent have a favorable impression of Northam, while only 28 percent have an unfavorable impression.
Gillespie, a former adviser to President George W. Bush, has decided that defense of Confederate statues and a hard line on immigration are the keys to solidifying Republican support. Virginia Republicans narrowly picked Gillespie in the primary over Corey Stewart, an acolyte of President Trump. Gillespie even released “Willie Horton”-type ads like this one hoping to gin up his numbers with those white Republicans who imagine illegal immigrants are a threat to their safety:
Maybe that will help him recover support from a few downstate anti-immigrant conservatives. However, it’s likely to remind Northern Virginians of Trump’s xenophobic outlook, which Gillespie has donned for the sake of political convenience.
Gillespie didn’t stop there. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports:
A new mailer approved by Republican gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie features a photo of the Robert E. Lee statue on Richmond’s Monument Avenue and accuses Democrat Ralph S. Northam of wanting to “tear down history while making life easier for illegal immigrants.”
The political flier, paid for by the Republican Party of Virginia, swaps out Gillespie’s usual “For ALL Virginians” slogan for the lesser-used “For a safer, stronger Virginia.”
The new messaging is the latest sign of Gillespie and his party moving toward a more direct approach to the racially charged issues that carried anti-establishment firebrand Corey Stewart to a surprisingly strong finish in the GOP primary this year.
Unfortunately for Gillespie, only 10 percent of voters say illegal immigration is a top concern. Gillespie, meanwhile, has raised a fuss about so-called sanctuary cities. (Back in February the Virginian-Pilot reported, “Republicans played political games with the vote on the floor. Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City County, initially voted against the bill [banning sanctuary cities that don’t exist anyway] to create a 20-20 tie, which Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, who’s running for governor, broke by voting against it. Republican challenger for governor Ed Gillespie pounced quickly, using Twitter to denounce Northam’s vote right after it happened.”) This depressing turn for a candidate who once sounded a moderate tone on immigration hasn’t worked. The Post-Schar School poll shows that “a 59 percent majority of registered voters say illegal immigration is ‘not a problem’ in their part of Virginia, a flip from 2007 when 53 percent of voters said it was a problem.” Meanwhile, only 3 percent of voters say their top issue is Confederate statues.
In short, in the past 10 years Virginia has moved forward, becoming a more diverse and moderate state with an influx of high-tech workers, minorities and out-of-staters with no fondness for the Old South; Gillespie, however, is running a throwback campaign. The result may be that he alienates both Stewart voters, who spot him as a phony, and also turns off winnable independents and Democrats who dislike his crass xenophobic appeal that has little to do with the lives of ordinary Virginians. (It’s telling that among moderate voters, Gillespie trails by more than 30 points in the Post-Schar School poll.)
Gillespie’s descent — from a can-do problem-solver in his close Senate race loss to Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) in 2014 to faux-Trumpian candidate in 2017 — epitomizes today’s GOP. Lacking ideas to improve voters’ lives — or the courage to run on such ideas — they fall back on base-pleasing themes that turn off the rest of the electorate. That might work for Roy Moore in Alabama, but Virginia isn’t Alabama. Someone should tell that to Gillespie’s team.