RICHMOND — With images of the torch-bearing white nationalists who rallied in Charlottesville last year, a flier distributed by the Republican Party of Virginia accuses a Democrat running for Congress of being anti-Semitic.
The party bases that allegation on a 1991 book Leslie Cockburn co-wrote that is highly critical of U.S.-Israeli covert operations.
“Racists in Charlottesville chanted ‘Jews will not replace us.’ Leslie Cockburn’s book adds fuel to the fire,” says the mailer, which mixes pictures of torch-bearing protesters with a photos of Cockburn and her book, “Dangerous Liaison.” “Reject anti-Semitism. Reject Leslie Cockburn.”
The party said the mailers went to “thousands” of voters across the district. Asked whether Cockburn opponent Denver Riggleman supports the use of the fliers, campaign manager Joe Chelak said in an email: “Denver Riggleman has condemned White Supremacy and all forms of hate. He is disturbed and appalled by Leslie Cockburn’s book’s use on White Supremacy websites. Her radical stance on Israel is a foreign policy issue that 5th district voters should be informed about.”
Cockburn, who stands by her book, has touted her endorsement from the pro-Israel J Street PAC as evidence that her criticism of Israel does not mean she is anti-Semitic.
She released a statement Monday that quotes seven clergy members who vouched for her, including the rabbi from Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville. The clergy denounced making political hay out of the deadly August 2017 Unite the Right rally and two smaller, torch-lit protests.
“I find it appalling that members of the Republican Party expect me to not be offended by invoking the Charlottesville tragedy to play politics,” said the Rev. Thomas Motley of Danville’s Elba Missionary Baptist Church, one of the seven.
But Democrats used the same images last year against Republican Ed Gillespie in the race for governor.
Cockburn and Riggleman are competing for a seat that is being vacated by Rep. Thomas Garrett, who announced in May that he is an alcoholic and will step down at the end of this term to deal with his illness.
Riggleman ran unsuccessfully for governor last year; this is Cockburn’s first foray into politics.
Even as she pushed back against the mailers on Monday, Cockburn turned to Twitter to suggest a tenuous connection between Riggleman and white supremacism.
Virginia’s sprawling 5th Congressional District, which stretches from the North Carolina border to nearly the Maryland border, includes Charlottesville.
Given how powerfully Charlottesville was shaken by the rally that claimed three lives, both parties are trying to harness that emotional punch in messaging — while sometimes tsk-tsking rivals for exploiting a tragedy.
Stephen Farnsworth, a University of Mary Washington political scientist, said the power of those images makes them irresistible.
“In the 5th District and in Charlottesville in particular, these are not half-remembered memories,” Farnsworth said. “The images of Charlottesville a year ago still resonate very powerfully. That’s one of the things to draw from this flier. Asking a politician to forgo an opportunity is probably likely to leave one disappointed.”
Because they’re provocative, the GOP mailers could bring attention to the book Cockburn wrote with her husband, Andrew Cockburn. The mailers note that white supremacist websites have promoted the book and quote a New York Times review panning it.
“Its first message is that, win or lose, smart or dumb, right or wrong, suave or boorish, Israelis are a menace,” the Times wrote. “The second is that the Israeli-American connection is somewhere behind just about everything that ails us.”
During last year’s gubernatorial race, the statewide Democratic ticket paired pictures of the Charlottesville torchbearers with President Trump and Gillespie.
Gillespie had repeatedly condemned the white nationalists but stopped short of criticizing Trump for saying there were “very fine people” on both sides at the rally. Gillespie’s spokesman condemned the fliers as an “ugly political attack that has no place in our Commonwealth’s political discourse.”
Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, saw the GOP mailer as an effort to help down-ticket Republican candidates such as Riggleman distinguish themselves from the party’s U.S. Senate nominee, Corey Stewart.
Stewart, in his failed bid for the Republican gubernatorial nomination last year, made a few appearances with rally organizer Jason Kessler ahead of the deadly event. A Trump-style provocateur, Stewart was the lone Virginia Republican who did not condemn white nationalists in its aftermath. In his current Senate race, Stewart has distanced himself from Kessler and said he initially was unaware of Kessler’s extremist views.
“The GOP in some ways is maybe trying to turn something that is a negative for them . . . and throwing it back on the Democrats,” Skelley said.
Farnsworth had a similar take.
“The Republican Party is offering a very different message in this flier than the Republican president and the Republican candidate for the Senate have offered in the past,” he said. “It may suggest that the Trump and Stewart approach isn’t a winning hand in that congressional district, and the best thing for the Republican nominee to do is muddy the waters.”
As the anniversary of the Charlottesville rally approached earlier this month, Riggleman put out a strongly worded message against white supremacists.
“To any white supremacists intending to come back to Charlottesville on August 12 this year, I say this: You are not welcome,” he wrote. “Go back to your cave. Vote for somebody else. I don’t want your support, your help, or your vote.”
At the same time, the Democratic Party and Cockburn have accused Riggleman of campaigning with “avowed white supremacist Isaac Smith.”
Smith was once a close associate of Kessler, teaming up with him and Corey Stewart last year to call for the preservation of Charlottesville’s Robert E. Lee monument. But Smith publicly broke with Kessler before the Aug. 12 rally, alarmed by extremists whom Kessler had lined up to speak.
Smith says he has turned away from his flirtation with the alt-right, which seeks a whites-only state, and in the past year has worked to organize events in Charlottesville intended to help the city heal.
But when he appeared at a public event for Riggleman this year, Democrats spotted him in the crowd in news footage and issued a release saying Riggleman was campaigning with a white supremacist.
Smith and a Riggleman spokesman say he has no role in the campaign.
In a tweet Monday, Cockburn said Riggleman and Stewart, “who share the Republican ticket, were photographed with the same white supremacist, who is now a ‘recovering white supremacist’. Welcome to Va-5.”