RICHMOND — Hours after they were complimented for their civility by moderator Chuck Todd at a televised debate this week, Republican Ed Gillespie and Democrat Ralph Northam each unleashed negative ads that attacked the other guy as unworthy of becoming the next governor.
As the MS-13 motto “Kill, Rape, Control” flashes across the screen, the ad criticizes Northam for voting against a bill that would have prohibited the establishment of “sanctuary cities” in the state.
“MS-13 is a menace, yet Ralph Northam voted in favor of sanctuary cities that let dangerous illegal immigrants back on the street, increasing the threat of MS-13,” a narrator says. “Ralph Northam’s policies are dangerous.”
The 30-second spot intersperses photos of Northam with the tattooed faces of men who, as it turns out, were photographed in a prison in El Salvador and were not MS-13 members but part of a rival gang, Barrio 18 - which ThinkProgress first reported and Spanish photographer Pau Coll later confirmed to The Washington Post.
“No matter if the image is MS-13 or Barrio 18, Ed is committed to eliminating the threat of gang violence to his fellow Virginians,” Gillespie spokesman David Abrams said. “Ed has made public safety and gang eradication a top priority.”
The text across the screen in the ad says: “Ralph Northam: Increasing the threat of MS-13.”
The ad was based on a tiebreaking vote Northam cast in the state Senate this year, against a bill that would have prohibited the establishment of sanctuary cities, which are generally defined as localities that limit or ban cooperation with federal immigration authorities. Virginia does not have any sanctuary cities.
At Tuesday’s debate, Northam said he was proud of the vote but also said violent criminals should be locked up regardless of immigration status.
Northam’s campaign criticized the “blatantly misleading” ad, comparing it to the racially charged “Willie Horton” attack ad used against Democrat Mike Dukakis in the 1988 presidential race.
“A career political hatchet man, Ed is taking a page out of the Trump playbook: butchering the facts to try and frighten the voters,” Northam spokesman David Turner said.
The ad has aired in the Charlottesville, Roanoke, Bristol and Harrisonburg media markets so far.
As it was released Wednesday, the Northam campaign countered with a commercial dubbed ""Enron Ed,"
Northam's ad criticizes Gillespie's background as a lobbyist and consultant to corporations, most notably energy giant Enron, which imploded amid an accounting scandal in the early 2000s.
“They call him ‘Enron Ed,’ because Washington, D.C., lobbyist Ed Gillespie represented the worst of the worst: lenders trying to keep student loan rates high, corporations sending jobs overseas, and of course — the Enron scandal,” the narrator begins. “Now, Enron Ed is lobbying for Donald Trump’s agenda, like cuts to Virginia’s school funding, and taking away health care from thousands of Virginians.”
Gillespie has walked a fine line regarding Trump, trying to keep his distance from the president’s most controversial statements and actions while courting Trump voters. Gillespie has supported Republican efforts to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act, which is the basis of the ad’s health care claim. He has declined to take a stand on the latest GOP health care legislation pending in the Senate.
Gillespie has not called for cutting school funding. Northam’s campaign cites Gillespie’s proposal to cut taxes as evidence he would do so. Gillespie has said his plan is structured in a way that the tax cuts would only kick in if there’s enough revenue to fund schools, transportation and other needs.
Abrams said Northam was digging up dirt that did not stick to Gillespie in 2014, when he nearly unseated Sen. Mark R. Warner (D). Gillespie has said that his now-shuttered lobbying firm had been misled by Enron.
“Ed’s former firm, which no longer even exists, had nothing to do with Enron’s fraudulent activity 16 years ago, but Lt. Governor Northam has everything to do with the votes he’s cast in our General Assembly during his time in office,” Abrams said.
Mark J. Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government of George Mason University in Virginia, said the ads were a sharp departure from the tone of the debate.
“There goes all that civility we talked about,” said Rozell, who served as a panelist for debate.
Of Gillespie’s ad, he said, “It’s like a page out of the Trump playbook, trying to motivate voters by playing to their fears. Strictly speaking, there are no sanctuary cities in Virginia, so is this really a key, focal issue for the electorate in this campaign or is the candidate really just trying to ratchet up fear of crime and danger and make his opponent seem soft on crime and illegal immigration?”
He said Northam’s ad stretched the truth given that Gillespie has not called for cuts to school funding.
“Each one take some element of reality and then stretches it severely to try to score some big political point,” he said. “To be fair, that’s what many of these campaign ads do, but they’re very misleading.
Gillespie’s ad drew particular notice because he has, at least until now, walked a fine line on immigration.
As chairman of the Republican National Committee, Gillespie pushed for a more diverse, “big tent” party. He has advocated for bipartisan immigration reform and for six years was a lobbyist for Tyson Foods, registered to handle issues that included “amnesty proposals” and “immigration reform.”
He has taken harder line at times during the governor’s race, particularly during the GOP primary, which he nearly lost to a Trump-style opponent. Ahead of the primary, he ran some targeted Facebook ads meant to appeal to Trump voters, with images of a massive border wall and immigrants in handcuffs.
But to larger audiences, Gillespie remained the “big tent” establishment figure, vowing to be “governor for all Virginians.”
The new TV ad could take his hard-line pitch to a broad audience, particularly if it airs in Northern Virginia, an area with large immigrant communities and swing voters.
Cristóbal J. Alex, president of the Latino Victory Fund, was highly critical of the ad.
"The intense focus on MS-13 comes directly from the Trump White House, which has turned MS-13 into a Latino boogeyman," he said. "It ignores the fact that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born individuals and that undocumented Latinos are often the victims of gangs like MS-13."
But Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of Inside Elections, called it "pretty standard fare for a negative ad in a competitive race."
"I think this ad will certainly offend some Democrats, but could sway some skeptical Trump supporters who may not have been excited previously about Gillespie," he said.
Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington, said the commercial hits at public safety concerns that resonate with voters.
"It's a powerful message to swing voters, who are far more concerned about their communities than what President Trump said today," Farnsworth said in an email.