For months, the Virginia governor’s race maintained a civil tone. But with five days until the election, a brawl has broken out over the airwaves.
Republican gubernatorial contender Ed Gillespie launched a new ad Thursday blasting a commercial that briefly aired against him as painting his supporters as racists, whipping up conservative rage online and the airwaves and directing it at the Democrat.
His Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, countered with a commercial linking Gillespie to President Trump, who is deeply unpopular in the state.
Gillespie's ad is a response to a commercial from the Latino Victory Fund (LVF) where a pick-up truck sporting a Confederate flag and Gillespie bumper sticker pursues a group of minority children. Officials at the fund said the ad was meant to portray the current climate of fear that Latinos and Muslim communities are experiencing. The ad itself was in response to what Latino advocates called "hate" from Gillespie's campaign, which has been airing attack ads against Northam that equates illegal immigrants with Latino gang violence.
The LVF commercial only aired two days on Spanish language stations before it was withdrawn after Tuesday’s terrorist attack in Manhattan that involved a pick-up truck.
Despite the fact that the ad came down, Republicans and conservative media outlets howled with objections and newspapers editorialized against it.
Gillespie’s response commercial features Fox News hosts denouncing the LVF ad. It includes clips of three groups of staid white people as the text on the screen reads “Liberal Ads Portray Gillespie Voters As Racists.”
“Ralph Northam doesn’t just disagree with the millions of Virginians that don’t share his liberal policy agenda,” Gillespie says in one clip used in the ad. “He disdains us. It’s an attack on all Virginians.”
Since September, the Gillespie campaign has been running ads that suggest Northam enables MS-13 gang violence, despite protests from Democrats and Latino groups that the commercials play on racial stereotypes and analyses from independent fact-checkers that call the ads “misleading.”
Gillespie is also airing a series of ads tying Northam to a sex offender who briefly had his rights restored as part of Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe's restoration of rights to felons who have completed their sentence. Northam responded with ads where he speaks to the camera and calls Gillespie "despicable" for saying he would tolerate anyone hurting a child.
Northam has also continued a blitz of ads attacking Gillespie's record as a lobbyist and consultant to corporations in between his stints as a Republican political operative. Those ads also included claims that lacked context, and earned four pinocchios from the Post's Fact Checkers.
Sources familiar with the strategy behind the Latino Victory Fund ad told The Washington Post that the commercial featuring the pick-up truck was meant to combat soft support for Northam among minority voters. It has been replaced with a pro-Northam commercial that LVF previously aired, featuring footage of Latinos and juxtaposing Gillespie and Donald Trump with white nationalists who marched in Charlottesville.
Gillespie’s campaign says the ad will air in “media markets across Virginia,” but did not provide details.
Northam, whose campaign did not produce or pay for the LVF ad, has defended the group by saying they had the right to respond to Gillespie’s “fear mongering” and “divisive” campaign. After the group pulled the commercial, Northam added that it wasn’t the kind of ad he would have aired.
In response to Gillespie’s new ad, Northam’s spokesman offered a harsh assessment of the Republican's campaign.
“Ed Gillespie has spent upwards of $9 million making obvious racial appeals,” said David Turner. “The tone and tenor of Ed’s campaign has been nothing but division and fear mongering. We understand why they would feel this way after the millions spent on demonizing immigrants.”
Meanwhile, Northam’s campaign is going on air with his bluntest attempt yet to tie Gillespie to Trump.
The ad juxtaposes photos of Gillespie and Trump. It accuses Gillespie of supporting president’s plans to take money from Virginia public schools, weaken clean air and water protections and take away health care from thousands of Virginians.
Those are references to the Trump administration's moves to overhaul Obamacare and roll back regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, while supporting taxpayer-funded vouchers for parents to send their children to private schools. Gillespie has declined to directly answer whether he supports vouchers, but he does back an alternative that allows parents to take tax dollars that would have been spent to educate their children in public schools and instead use it on private school tuition.
“Ed Gillespie won’t stand up to Donald Trump because Ed’s standing right next to him,” the narrator in Northam’s commercial says.
David Abrams, a spokesman for the Gillespie campaign, called it “a last-minute desperate attack.”
Trump has endorsed Gillespie through a series of tweets, but, barring an unexpected surprise, will not hit the campaign trail for the Republican before leaving Friday for his Asia trip.