The violence that occurred after hundreds of neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members and other white nationalists gathered in Charlottesville this weekend came during an election year in Virginia, where voters are electing a new governor in a contest watched as a bellwether for politics in the era of President Trump.
The university town’s decision to remove a downtown statute of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee fueled the white nationalist backlash. The local issue has resonated in campaigns across the state, and it has prompted candidates in the former heart of the Confederacy to grapple with lingering racial tensions and what appears to be a newfound boldness among white nationalists.
The attention to this weekend’s clashes in Charlottesville, which resulted in at least one fatality and a response from President Trump, also turned a spotlight to how the gubernatorial candidates would respond.
The Democratic nominee, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, joined other Virginia Democrats in denouncing white supremacy, and he says he plans to visit Charlottesville on Sunday. He praised Charlottesville for defending its values of “openness, diversity and inclusion” from numerous protests, including a rally of 30 Klansmen in July.
“White supremacists have descended upon Charlottesville again to evoke a reaction as ugly and violent as their beliefs — just as they did before, I am urging Virginians to deny them the satisfaction,” Northam said in a statement.
The Charlottesville statue has created an awkward conundrum for GOP gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie, who nearly lost his primary election to a candidate who welcomed the support of white nationalists and made defending Confederate statues a central issue of his campaign. During the primary, Gillespie stressed that he did not support removing the Lee statue (he said he thinks the issue is a local, not state, matter), although his opponent Corey Stewart ran ads claiming otherwise.
Gillespie, a longtime party operative and former chairman of the Republican National Committee, released a statement Saturday condemning the “events in Charlottesville.”
“Having a right to spew vile hate does not make it right,” Gillespie said. “It is painful to see these ugly events in Charlottesville last night and today. These displays have no place in our Commonwealth, and the mentality on display is rejected by the decent, thoughtful and compassionate fellow Virginians I see every day.”
A spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association criticized Gillespie’s response for not mentioning his support for the Confederate statue “at the center of the Charlottesville march.”
The other governor’s race this year is in New Jersey, where Democratic candidate Phil Murphy is expected to win easily. Murphy issued a statement that called the turmoil in Charlottesville a “sad result of when hate and bigotry are given a wink and nod by the President and those around him.”
Other Republican leaders in Virginia were more direct than Gillespie in labeling the rallies.
Lieutenant governor nominee Jill Vogel, a state senator from Fauquier County, called them a “vile display of racism,” while GOP attorney general nominee John Adams described them as “Nazi-ideology on display.” In a statement, Republican leaders in the state House called the demonstrators “racists, white supremacists and Nazi-ideologues.” U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock, seen as the most vulnerable Republican member of Congress in Virginia, described the marchers as neo-Nazis.
In response to a former GOP state lawmaker who called on him to describe the apparent attack as terrorism, Gillespie later suggested on Twitter that the injuries and fatality after a car plowed into a crowd were “definitely tragic effect of vile neo Nazi and white supremacist actions.”
Stewart, who plans to challenge Sen. Tim Kaine (D) next year after losing to Gillespie in GOP gubernatorial primary, posted a video on Facebook on Saturday evening accusing the media and Democrats of ignoring violence from the left and urged vigilance against attempts to stifle conservative speech in the aftermath of the Charlottesville violence. He did not criticize the white nationalists who rallied, except to say that “we must hunt down and find the criminals who perpetrated these horrible crimes.”
“I don’t believe that this is caused by white supremacy. I believe this is caused by two groups duking it out on the streets,” Stewart said in an interview, adding that he hasn’t wavered in his support for the Lee statue and thinks that the KKK and other “racist groups” will not heed calls to butt out. “They have nothing to do with us, and they are trying to hijack this issue.”
Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who cannot seek consecutive terms under Virginia’s constitution, declared a state of emergency over the clashes and told white supremacists they were “not welcome” in the commonwealth.
Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D), who is seeking a second term, had a pointed reaction to Trump’s condemnation of “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.”
“The violence, chaos, and apparent loss of life in Charlottesville is not the fault of ‘many sides.’ It is racists and white supremacists,” Herring tweeted.
Democratic lieutenant governor nominee Justin Fairfax, who would be the first African American elected statewide since L. Douglas Wilder served as governor, issued a statement calling for unity against “those who want to divide communities.”
“This moment is also a reminder of the need to tone down political rhetoric and the negativity we often see in our current politics,” Fairfax said.
Rep. Thomas Garrett (R-Va.), who represents Charlottesville in Congress, faced criticism after a months-old photo of him posing with Jason Kessler, the rally’s organizer, circulated on Twitter.
A spokesman for Garrett told the Charlottesville newspaper the Daily Progress in May that Garrett had met with Kessler to discuss a town hall and unrelated terrorism bill.
Garrett tweeted Saturday to condemn what he called “despicable escalation of racist rhetoric in Charlottesville.” Later, in an interview with Fox News, he said, “The victims of this racist violence are my constituents. . . . It blows my mind that this many racist bigots actually exist in this country.”
David Weigel contributed to this report.