Republican Ed Gillespie has been fighting to keep the focus of his campaign for Virginia governor on state issues and away from President Trump.
That task grew more challenging this week after Trump defended some of the white nationalists who marched in Charlottesville and bashed efforts to remove Confederate statues — directly injecting national politics into the Virginia governor’s race.
Numerous Republicans, including at least six U.S. senators, Reps. Barbara Comstock (Va.) and Scott W. Taylor (Va.) and neighboring Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, criticized Trump after he blamed “both sides” for violence in Charlottesville that resulted in one death and multiple injuries.
Gillespie, a longtime GOP operative and former Republican National Committee chairman, repeatedly said this week there’s no moral equivalence between white nationalists and the counterprotesters who clashed with them in Charlottesville.
The GOP candidate tweeted that the views of the white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville “have no redeeming value whatsoever. Simple as that” — without ever mentioning the president.
While Trump is highly unpopular in Virginia, and lost the state by five points to Hillary Clinton last year, Gillespie needs support from some Trump voters in November if he is to beat Democrat Ralph Northam, who has a slight lead on Gillespie in recent polls.
“Gillespie seems to be faced with one hurdle after another that Trump is actually placing in front of him in Virginia,” said Bob Holsworth, a retired Virginia Commonwealth University professor and longtime observer of state politics. “In each of these hurdles, he is trying not to directly criticize Trump, but to significantly distance himself in some fashion from Trump. That’s quite a tightrope to walk.”
Northam, and groups supporting him, have seized on Gillespie’s “silence” about Trump.
“It’s disappointing to see that my opponent won’t stand up to the president when he’s so clearly been wrong,” said Northam, the state’s lieutenant governor, in an interview. “The leader of our country needs to stand up to the white supremacists and say, ‘No more, stop it, go home and go back.’ Ed Gillespie needs to tell President Trump the same thing.”
Geoffrey Skelley, an analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, says the post-Charlottesville electoral landscape holds risk for Northam, too.
The cause of preserving Confederate monuments could motivate conservative voters who would have otherwise stayed home to turn out for Gillespie, he said. If protests against monuments get out of hand, such as vigilantes taking down statues, that could hurt Democrats like Northam, Skelley said.
“Democrats smell blood on this and are going for it, but you could see it sort of blowing back if their own potential supporters on the left go too far,” Skelley said.
Vice President Pence abruptly canceled two political appearances he was scheduled to make in Virginia with Gillespie on Saturday; aides said he needed to keep his weekend flexible.
Those cancellations may ease optics for Gillespie, whose campaign declined to comment Thursday about Trump but indirectly criticized the president’s remark that there were “fine people” in the white nationalist rally.
“Ed did not see any fine people on the side of the white nationalists and neo-Nazis who convened in Charlottesville on Saturday,” spokesman Dave Abrams said.
One Republican operative unaffiliated with the Gillespie campaign said it would be a mistake for the candidate to talk about Trump. “I don’t think Ed is going to play the game of commenting on what Trump says or doesn’t say because if he does, my God, that’s the only thing he’ll answer for between now and the election,” said the operative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk freely about strategy.
Northam and other Virginia Democrats shifted their positions on Wednesday to call on localities and the legislature to relocate Confederate statues to museums. Trump on Thursday called efforts to remove “beautiful” statues “foolish” and an assault on the “history and culture of our great country.”
Gillespie is trying to stake out a middle ground: He opposes the removal of Confederate statues but says historical context should be added.
His efforts are complicated by Corey A. Stewart, who came within one percentage point of beating Gillespie for the GOP nomination in June by making the preservation of Virginia’s Confederate heritage a signature issue.
Stewart, who has launched a campaign to challenge U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D) with a similar strategy, appeared in a combative interview Thursday on CNN in which he repeatedly denounced the “violent left” and criticized Republicans for being too apologetic after Charlottesville for fear of being branded racists.
Conservative-base voters will measure Gillespie against the hard-line stances staked out by Stewart, said Quentin Kidd, a political scientist at Christopher Newport University.
“I can only imagine Gillespie’s people would love to pay Corey Stewart to go away, have a vacation on a Caribbean island,” Kidd said.