RICHMOND — The Libertarian running for Virginia governor scolded his major-party rivals Thursday for letting the initially civil tone of the race descend into "wild-eyed accusations and divisive rhetoric."
Cliff Hyra, who could play spoiler in the neck-and-neck race, called on Republican Ed Gillespie and Democrat Ralph Northam to stop their attack ads.
"What is politics coming to, what is our society coming to, when two candidates for statewide office spend millions of dollars on ads accusing their opponent of sympathizing with violent street gangs, pedophiles, white nationalists and neo-Nazis, and of harboring supporters who want to run over our children with trucks?" Hyra said at a news conference on Richmond's Capitol Square.
"I fear for the future of our commonwealth, and of our nation, when even the most staid candidates feel they have to descend to this level of discourse to win an election, and are willing to do so," said Hyra, a suburban Richmond patent attorney making his first run for elective office.
Hyra's comments came just five days before Election Day, at a moment when TV ads and mailers have turned harshly negative. As Hyra called for a cease-fire, Gillespie was rolling out a new attack ad — on an anti-Gillespie attack ad that was, itself, a response to earlier Gillespie attack ads.
The downward spiral began a few weeks ago with an ad from Gillespie, a longtime GOP operative and Washington lobbyist. The spot said that Northam — the state's lieutenant governor, a pediatrician and a onetime Army doctor who treated wounded soldiers during Operation Desert Storm — had allowed members of the MS-13 street gang to prey on Virginians in "sanctuary cities."
Virginia has no sanctuary cities. The spot featured the tattooed faces of gang members who, as it turns out, were imprisoned in El Salvador and belong to an entirely different gang.
Gillespie followed up with an ad that said Northam was soft on pedophiles, based on a sex offender who briefly got his voting rights restored by Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D).
The whole Democratic ticket struck back last week with a mailer linking Gillespie and President Trump to the torch-bearing white nationalists who descended on Charlottesville over the summer.
Trump said there were "very fine people" on both sides of the protest. Although Gillespie did not join the widespread criticism of Trump's remarks, he has repeatedly condemned the white nationalists and said there was no "moral equivalency" between them and the counterprotesters with whom they clashed.
Then Monday, a progressive Latino group launched an anti-Gillespie ad showing minority children being chased by a pickup truck that bore a Confederate flag and a Gillespie bumper sticker.
Northam's campaign did not produce or pay for the ad, which came from the Latino Victory Fund. But Northam initially said the group had a right to respond to Gillespie's "fearmongering" campaign. After the Victory Fund pulled the ad Tuesday following a fatal truck attack in New York, Northam said it was not the kind of commercial he would have aired.
Now Gillespie has turned backlash over the Latino Victory Fund commercial into an entirely new attack ad, saying the spot was evidence that Northam "disdains" millions of Virginians. Northam, meanwhile, went up on the air with a new ad saying that Gillespie "won't stand up to Donald Trump."
Their bitter back-and-forth has disgusted many Virginians, including the oldest of Hyra's four children, he said. "They're acting like children!" he said 7-year-old Cheyenne declared.
"Apparently [Gillespie and Northam] think that the best strategy for getting elected to the highest office in the state is name-calling," he said. "I feel like telling them, 'Don't make me turn this car around!' "
He called on the candidates to focus on the economy, education, health care and criminal justice in the remaining days. And he implored voters not to let the negativity deter them from voting.
Hyra acknowledged that he is not going to win. Just 4 percent of likely voters support him in the latest Washington Post-Schar School poll, which has Northam leading 49 percent to Gillespie's 44 percent, a margin that is not statistically significant.
Hyra said his greatest hope would be to hit 10 percent — a threshold that would give Libertarians major-party status, making it easier for candidates to get on the ballot.
He said he doesn't fear playing spoiler.
"I think both candidates are not good candidates," he said. "I don't think they have the right plans for the future of Virginia, so I'm not concerned if it affects the election one way or the other."