RICHMOND — The Republican Party of Virginia said Wednesday that Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, whose ancestors once owned slaves and fought in the Civil War, had “turned his back on his own family’s heritage” by calling for the removal of Confederate monuments.
The accusation drew swift condemnation from Democrats and some Republicans, who said it amounted to calling Northam a “race traitor.”
In a two-part tweet on its official account posted shortly after noon, the state party took aim at Northam, the Democratic nominee for governor, whose great-great-grandfather owned eight slaves in 1860 and nine slaves in 1850 on Virginia’s rural Eastern Shore.
“.@RalphNortham has turned his back on his own family’s heritage in demanding monument removal (1/2),” it read. “Shows @RalphNortham will do anything or say anything to try and be #VAGov - #Pathetic 2/2.”
The blowback was instant.
“I feel fine about turning my back on white supremacy. How does @EdWGillespie feel about the president’s position?” Northam tweeted in response, referring to his rival in the November election, former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie.
The Daily Beast ran a story under the headline: “Virginia GOP Calls Democratic Candidate a Race Traitor for Wanting Confederate Statues Removed.”
Even a conservative blog, the Reagan Battalion, jumped in, asking the Virginia Republican Party, “Was your account hacked?”
Former delegate David Ramadan, a Republican, tweeted: “Have you lost your minds — who is in control of your twitter act?”
After nearly four hours, the state party pulled down the tweet and replaced it with this: “Our previous tweets were interpreted in a way we never intended. We apologize and reiterate our denunciation of racism in all forms.”
Eric Boehlert, a writer, trolled the state Republican Party by tweeting, “It’s almost like yr trying to erase history when you deleted the tweets.....#monuments.”
John Findlay, executive director of the state GOP, said the party was not suggesting that Northam should stand with his ancestors as slave holders.
“We said that Ralph Northam is turning his back on his heritage and family. It is because his great-grandfather fought for the side of the Confederacy and was wounded during the Civil War,” Findlay said. “When he wants to tear down monuments dedicated to those killed in action and wounded during the war, he is literally talking about a member of his own family.”
Findlay noted a MassInc. poll released Tuesday that found a slim majority of Virginia voters — 51 percent — want the statues to remain on public property, while 28 percent would like them removed. A majority — 52 percent — of voters polled also consider the monuments part of Southern heritage, while just 25 percent believe the statues are symbols of racism.
“A substantial majority of Virginians believe these monuments are not about hate but about history, and we likewise share that opinion,” Findlay said.
Northam called for the removal of the state’s Confederate monuments after a deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, which had been called to protest the city’s plan to remove a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee from a downtown park. One woman was killed by a car driven by a man whom police described as a white supremacist, and two state troopers patrolling the protest by air died when their helicopter crashed.
Gillespie, who like Northam notes that localities control the fate of their monuments, has said that his preference is to keep the statues but to add historical context.
“The RPV was right to apologize for the tweet and to take it down,” Gillespie spokesman David Abrams wrote in an email. “Though Ed disagrees with the Lieutenant Governor on the issue of statues, he knows we can disagree on issues like this without devolving into divisive rhetoric.”
The party tweeted about Northam after tangling on Twitter for days with former congressman Tom Perriello, who in June lost the Democratic primary to Northam.
Perriello, who grew up in Charlottesville, tweeted after the rally to denounce hate groups and President Trump’s equivocating response to the violent events. He also turned his fire on Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. after the prominent evangelical leader praised Trump for his “bold truthful stmt about #charlottesville tragedy.”
“The devil has his grip so firmly around @JerryFalwellJr that I’m praying for his exorcism. #Repent,” Perriello tweeted.
The former congressman also tweeted: “If you have a white pastor/priest who doesn’t preach on white supremacy as blasphemy against image of God in another, please say something.” And: “White evangelical leaders, your whiteness is the golden calf you choose to worship and idolize, in blasphemy of God’s word. #RepentNow.”
The GOP replied to the last of those with, “.@tomperriello Let’s not mince words: you are a Christian-hating bigot We were better off when you were out of the country #LeftWingBigot.”
Perriello, who served overseas in the State Department under President Barack Obama, later said he was not accusing all white evangelical leaders of racism, only those who do not preach that white supremacy is blasphemy.
“If they can produce a single Christian leader who agrees with their nonsense, I am happy to sit down with them,” he told The Washington Post. “Otherwise they should delete these tweets that insult Christianity and stoke hate.”
Democrats were quick to defend Perriello’s tweets.
“How rich @VA_GOP attacks @tomperriello (observant Catholic) for speaking out against white supremacy. They’ve been silent on Trump,” tweeted Kevin Donohue, a spokesman for the Democratic Party of Virginia.