One candidate has linked his opponent to torch-wielding white nationalists. The other implies his opponent supports gun rights for pedophiles.
This year’s Virginia governor’s race, long a gentlemanly affair, is getting ugly. Democrat Ralph Northam and Republican Ed Gillespie have dropped all pretense of civility and are trading increasingly lurid attacks, looking for any advantage in the closely watched contest with nine days until voters head to the polls. Both parties see the race, one of just two gubernatorial campaigns in the country in 2017, as a key opportunity to demonstrate political momentum at the end of President Donald Trump’s first year in the White House.
And so both campaigns — especially Gillespie’s, which trails in most polls — are serving up more and more brutal attacks and volleying back with outrage that their opponent would sink so low.
In one of Gillespie’s most recent TV ads, a young mother proclaims she can’t vote for Northam because he “supports automatic restoration of rights for sex offenders, making it easier for these violent felons to get guns.” The ad references Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s program, supported by Northam, to restore civil rights to felons who have served their sentences. Gillespie’s ad spotlights one man, John Bowen, who had his rights restored after being convicted of a sexual offense with a minor — but later pleaded guilty to possessing a massive cache of child pornography.
“Nothing is more important to me than keeping my children safe,” Heather Steele, a Northern Virginia woman, says in the spot. “That’s why I can’t vote for Ralph Northam.” (The Northam campaign has noted Steele has written for conservative blogs in the state.)
Northam has not been as nasty on television airwaves, instead focusing on attacks on Gillespie’s long lobbying career. His campaign has also reacted furiously to Gillespie’s ads suggesting Northam paved the way for the Central American gang MS-13 to thrive in Virginia. But the cautious lieutenant governor did recently approve a Democratic Party of Virginia mailer linking Gillespie to white nationalist protesters. The flyer superimposes images of Gillespie and Trump over white supremacists on the march in Charlottesville.
“On Tuesday November 7th, Virginia Gets To Stand Up … To Hate,” the mailer says. Gillespie denounced the white supremacists this summer, but Northam’s campaign has blasted him for staying silent about Trump, who delayed singling out the marchers for criticism.
It wasn’t always this way. Gillespie and Northam won plaudits from editorial boards after their early debates for their courteous behavior. But national attention and expectations have intensified in Virginia since then, and most polling of the race is still within the margin of error, showing a narrow but surmountable Northam lead.
“This is an ugly political attack that has no place in our Commonwealth’s political discourse,” Gillespie campaign manager Chris Leavitt said in a statement responding to the Democrats’ mailer.
The Gillespie campaign’s outcry over the mailer, which was sent to households in Hampton Roads, is based on Gillespie’s denunciation of the white supremacists in Charlottesville who are depicted on the flyer. But the Northam campaign notes that Gillespie has never criticized Trump’s response to the rally, in which he said there were “fine people … on all sides” of the event.
Gillespie is also airing multiple ads arguing that Confederate monuments should be kept up.
“For governor, there’s a clear choice: Ralph Northam wants to take down Virginia’s Civil War monuments,” a male narrator says before a clip plays of Northam saying he will do everything in his power to take down the statues. “Ralph Northam will take our statues down. Ed Gillespie will preserve them.”
Northam supports removing the statues and putting them in museums with historical context, while Gillespie supports keeping them and adding historical context. Both have also said the final decision should be left to localities.
Gillespie has invested far more time and money into provocative attacks than Northam, starting with the MS-13 ads, featuring photos of a gang member in El Salvador with face tattoos, back in early September.
Northam allies have long suggested Gillespie’s attacks on Northam over both sanctuary cities and rights restoration would simply bounce off the Democrat. Northam, a Virginia Military Institute graduate who worked as an Army doctor and pediatrician, simply doesn’t project as a liberal who would put families at risk, they argue. They say these ads merely confirm for Democratic-leaning voters in Northern Virginia that Gillespie is simply a clone of Trump.
But that hasn’t stopped them from airing television response ads designed to rebut the attacks.
“I’m a pediatrician, and for Ed Gillespie to say I would tolerate anyone hurting a child is despicable,” Northam says in his latest TV ad.
Democrats in Virginia have gone so far to compare Gillespie’s spot to an infamous ad aired in the 2005 gubernatorial contest by then-Attorney General Jerry Kilgore. The ad from Kilgore, the Republican nominee that year, featured a murder victim’s father who said then-Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine, who personally opposes the death penalty, wouldn’t put Hitler to death. The ad prompted a backlash from voters, Jewish groups and editorial boards.
Kaine won the race, 52 percent to 46 percent.
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