In Virginia, voters are weary.
After a divisive and ugly presidential election, followed by the white supremacy dumpster fire that was Charlottesville, people just want a respite from the hate parade. But they aren’t getting it in this gubernatorial election.
Attack ads are everywhere. Insults are flying. And revulsion is growing.
This week, I took a drive down Lee Highway, named for the Confederate general who has become such a Rorschach test in Virginia and around the country.
Along the way, at junkyards, farm stands, in suburban auto shops and hipster coffeehouses, I talked with Republicans and Democrats, with never Trumpers and forever Trumpers, with Hillary fans and Hillary haters, with devoted Berners and disaffected Berners. They all said the same thing — they’re disgusted with everything about the gubernatorial election pitting Republican Ed Gillespie against Democrat Ralph Northam.
“It’s immature,” said Judy Wood, 77. “And they’re not talking about anything that has to do with living here.”
Virginia is always one of the country’s most compelling electoral subplots, perpetually purple, its tendency to go redder or bluer a reflection of the national political pendulum.
The Old Dominion is commanding even more attention than usual, given the polarization over President Trump and the violence that consumed an August “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville. It’s made the whole country wonder what, exactly, Virginia is trying to tell us.
Nothing of substance, it turns out.
“All they’re doing is telling us how bad the other guy is,” said Lior Holtslag, 20, who helps manage Sam’s Junkyard on Lee Highway in Gainesville. “Talk to me about how good you are; don’t just trash the other guy. It’s pointless. And we’re all sick of it.”
The race for governor is a choice between two moderates. Both Gillespie and Northam denounced the violence and white-power messages in Charlottesville.
Though Gillespie supported Trump in the election, he has tried to distance himself from the president’s ugliest rhetoric. And that impulse nearly cost him the Republican nomination.
It was a close call in the primary when Trump’s mini-me, Corey A. Stewart, the anti-immigration chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, nearly beat Gillespie with a campaign swathed in Confederate colors.
When Gillespie prevailed in June, there was an exhale. Maybe the hate fever was finally starting to break. Lots of voters certainly hoped so.
Nasty attack ads launched last month — the kind of assaults with 140-character depth and powder keg instability — have turned this election into a scorched-earth battle for Virginia’s soul.
“Now they’re saying Northam will bring MS-13 into your neighborhood, and Gillespie is going to sell everyone out, and it’s just awful,” said one voter, who thinks this is the nastiest campaign she’s seen in Virginia politics since she moved to the state in 1959. (She didn’t want me to use her name because she didn’t want to be dragged into the public conversation.)
For the past few weeks, Gillespie’s campaign has run ads tying Northam, a pediatrician and Army doctor, to MS-13 gangbangers and to a child pornographer.
Northam supporters responded with fliers tying Gillespie to white nationalists. Then, a group called the Latino Victory Fund released an ad showing minority children being chased down by a pickup truck with a “Don’t Tread on Me” license plate, a Confederate flag and a Gillespie bumper sticker. The ad was pulled after Tuesday’s terrorist attack in Manhattan that involved a pickup truck.
“Listen. All this race stuff they’re all talking about? That’s not who we are, none of us,” said Janis Johnson, who works as a clerk at the Buckland Farm Market in Fauquier County. “I voted for Trump. I will follow him because he’s my president. But what Donald Trump says about the black and white thing? He’s not speaking for us. We’re neighbors. We’re friends. We’re all Virginians, and none of that makes sense.”
Johnson wants the men vying for her vote to talk about roads and schools. Jobs and health care.
Others raised alarms about the opioid epidemic. “I want them to talk about it like a health crisis,” Holtslag said.
“I’ve seen people go through that. And I wish they’d talk about that. That matters to me.”
Instead, Virginians are being subjected to low blows, attack ads and dog whistles. No wonder they can’t wait for Tuesday to be over.
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