A television ad depicting minority children running from a pickup truck sporting a bumper sticker for Virginia Republican Ed Gillespie is designed to criticize the gubernatorial candidate's ties to President Trump — and to address concerns that Democratic candidate Ralph Northam is struggling to connect with minority voters, according to people familiar with the strategy.
The ad was removed late Tuesday after a terrorism attack in New York City involved a pickup truck running down people on a bike path.
But before it was removed, it was designed to appeal to Latino voters. Public polling shows Northam easily beating Gillespie among black and Latino voters, but a recent private poll shared widely among minority advocacy groups sparked worry about the Democrat's appeal. Northam's campaign urged the groups not to release the poll's findings, according to multiple people familiar with the matter — a point not disputed by his campaign.
In the weeks since the poll was conducted, progressive groups have worked to tie Gillespie to Trump, whose approval rating among Latinos nationwide hovers in the teens. They worry that if Gillespie wins, his campaign ads — which raised concerns about illegal immigration and "sanctuary cities" and voiced support for Confederate-era monuments — could be replicated nationwide next year by GOP candidates eager to turn out conservative voters.
"If we can respond in a very hard way right now, that causes our people to turn out in force and stomp out that fire. Hopefully we will do that," Latino Victory Fund (LVF) President Cristóbal J. Alex said in an interview.
Alex's group produced the new ad, "American Nightmare," which features four young children — two Latino boys, an African American child and a Muslim girl wearing a headscarf — running from a white man driving a pickup truck adorned with the Gillespie sticker and a Confederate flag. The truck chases the children through a suburban neighborhood into a dead-end alley — at which point the children awake from a bad dream.
On late Tuesday afternoon, the LVF removed the commercial from YouTube and deleted its tweet promoting it, citing the suspected terrorist attack, which killed at least eight.
"We knew our ad would ruffle feathers. We held a mirror up to the Republican Party and they don't like what they see. We have decided to pull our ad at this time," Alex said. "Given recent events, we will be placing other powerful ads into rotation that highlight the reasons we need to elect progressive leaders in Virginia."
The Northam campaign did not ask the Latino Victory Fund to take down the ad, said spokesman David Turner, but believes "it is appropriate and the right thing to do."
LVF is a progressive organization that promotes and endorses Latino Democratic political candidates. The group plans to air the ad through Election Day on Spanish-language television stations in the Richmond and Washington markets and during local ad breaks on CNN and MSNBC in the Washington area.
"Gillespie brought this on with his relentless attacks on our community," Alex said. "This is a direct response."
Gillespie told Fox News Channel on Tuesday that the ad shows that Northam "doesn't just disagree with millions of Virginians who don't share his liberal policy agenda, he disdains us. And he disdains the people who want to have a civil debate about the policies."
Northam's campaign had nothing to do with the ad, but the candidate defended it on Monday, saying that the tactics used by Gillespie's campaign "have promoted fearmongering, hatred, bigotry, racial divisiveness. I mean, it's upset a lot of communities, and they have the right to express their views as well."
The private poll that caused worry showed Northam's support among Latino and black voters lower than expected across the commonwealth, according to multiple people who reviewed the data.
The private poll, published on Oct. 16, was paid for by America's Voice, an immigration change organization.
Frank Sharry, the group's founder and executive director, did not deny that his group paid for the poll.
"Not able to talk about this now," he said in an email. "Check back with me after the election."
Turner initially said he was not familiar with the poll, but after checking further he did not deny that the campaign had discouraged its release.
"We get a lot of data from a variety of organizations," he said. "Generally, unless I am responding to something like this, we do not release our data because there's no benefit to giving Gillespie free polling information."
He added that support from minority voters tends to rise as the election gets closer, and he said that internal polling shows the campaign matching or exceeding the performance of Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) with Latino and black voters at his election in 2013.
Surveying Latino voters in Virginia is difficult, given that they made up just 4.6 percent of all voters statewide last year, according to the Pew Research Center. But the private poll suggests Northam is lagging slightly behind the Latino support Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton received last year. She won 65 percent of the Latino vote in Virginia, compared with 30 percent for Trump, according to exit polls. Clinton won the state by about five percentage points.
A Washington Post-Schar School poll released Tuesday did not poll enough Latino voters to generate a measurable sample. But among nonwhite voters overall, Northam leads Gillespie 73 percent to 17 percent — similar to Clinton's margins in Virginia last year. Other statewide polls conducted last month by the Wason Center and Fox News showed Northam trouncing Gillespie among nonwhite voters.
But out on the trail, the Northam campaign's outreach to Latino voters sometimes appears to fall short.
Two "VA Vota" happy hours in Northern Virginia marketed to Latino voters drew sparse crowds. More recently, U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) — the first female Hispanic elected to the body — met with a small group of Latino student activists at George Mason University, telling them that they need Northam in the governor's mansion if they want Virginia to issue driver's licenses and discounted tuition to undocumented immigrants. Only eight student activists attended.
One advocate familiar with the strategy behind the new ad said that years of polling showed that such dramatic messages can work in the closing days of a campaign.
"All of us in the political class are talking about the Gillespie MS-13 ads. It turns out that a lot of people weren't aware it's on TV — he isn't running it on Telemundo," said the advocate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly about strategy. "We know from previous efforts that when people feel that threat and feel attacked, they respond."
Colin Rogero, who directed and produced the ad for the LVF, said the commercial is intended to evoke the same kind of visceral emotional reaction that Republicans have successfully used in their own advertising. The pickup truck chasing children is a metaphor for how communities of color feel targeted, he said.
"We needed to push back as forcefully as we have been pushed," Rogero said. "Let's show people who may not be experiencing this what people feel like and the real kind of palpable fear that exists right now."
The progressive group People for the American Way is also airing a Spanish-language TV message across the commonwealth that tries connecting Gillespie to Trump.
"Ed Gillespie talks about us, he demonizes us with divisive and racist language, calling us criminals," an announcer says in Spanish. "Let's not allow Trump's policies in Virginia."
CASA in Action, an immigration advocacy group that is politically active in the Washington region, is also spending roughly $170,000 to air spots on Spanish-language television, radio and websites to promote the Democratic statewide slate.
"We're dealing with difficult moments in this community," a young woman says in one of the ads.
"That's why we need leaders who think about us," a young man adds.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.