SPRINGFIELD, Va. — Ed Gillespie is running two very different campaigns for governor of Virginia.
In the last week of the biggest election of 2017, the Republican nominee has spent his time on the trail emphasizing his family’s immigrant story and talking up plans to improve Virginia’s economy.
But Gillespie’s stump speech has diverged sharply from his fusillade of paid advertising focused on cultural hot buttons — his support for keeping Confederate statues up, his opposition to NFL players kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality, and scorching accusations that Democrat Ralph Northam backs making it easier for sex offenders to buy guns.
The divergent campaigns appear to have helped Gillespie close the gap with Northam, the lieutenant governor and longtime polling leader, in the final weeks of the race. Democrats have responded with a furious effort to gin up black and Latino turnout and link Gillespie to President Donald Trump. But Gillespie’s strategy — adopting Trump’s racially charged culture war issues without adopting the president’s say-anything-at-any-time unpredictable style — could be widely adopted by other establishment Republican candidates in 2018 as a way to fire up Trump’s base without alienating Republicans who may dislike the unpopular president.
“You’d never take a knee … so take a stand on Election Day,” read campaign mailers from Gillespie featuring a kneeling football player, part of a series of mail pieces focused on social issues.
The mail is emblematic of Gillespie’s advertising themes in the closing week of the race. Over the last seven days, Gillespie has aired 12 ads on broadcast television, according to Advertising Analytics. Eight have been negative attacks on Northam about social issues, mostly crime — including four focused on Northam’s support of restoration of rights for felons, including sex offenders, “making it easier for these violent felons to get guns”; two ads attacking Northam for supporting the removal of statues of Confederate generals; one ad linking a Northam vote to allow sanctuary cities in Virginia to the growth of the violent El Salvadoran gang MS-13; and another spot criticizing an ad from the pro-Northam group Latino Victory Fund, which featured a Gillespie supporter chasing immigrant children in a pickup truck.
“Ralph Northam doesn’t just disagree with millions of Virginians who don’t share his liberal policy agenda,” Gillespie says in the ad. “He disdains us.”
Both Gillespie and Northam support allowing localities to make the final decision on statues, though Gillespie has said he would prefer they stay in place with additional context and Northam has said he would prefer they come down. There are no sanctuary cities in Virginia, and Northam has said he would sign legislation barring them if one popped up.
Gillespie has spent about $430,000 airing ads about statues 2,100 times on broadcast television, according to Advertising Analytics. He has also spent just more than $2 million to air ads linking Northam to sex offenders more than 4,500 times and about $1 million to air ads focused on MS-13 more than 3,700 times.
The remaining four Gillespie spots included a positive ad about his support for school choice, a positive spot about his plans for the economy and two spots attacking Northam over his economic plans.
The ads are a clear attempt to rev up the Republican base, which nearly dealt Gillespie a surprising primary defeat in June, when opponent Corey Stewart’s heated rhetoric on illegal immigration and fiery defense of Confederate monuments earned him 42.5 percent of the GOP primary vote. Gillespie spent years publicly disdaining such rhetoric, but he has won plaudits from the GOP’s right wing for adopting it this fall.
“If Gillespie wins, it’ll be in spite of his establishment background and because he embraced Trumpism on issues like immigration,” said Andy Surabian, a top ally to former White House strategist Steve Bannon and a senior adviser to a pro-Trump outside group. “If he falls short, it’ll be because he’s an inauthentic messenger on those issues.”
Gillespie’s team insists the social-issues war is both firing up the GOP base and winning over swing voters put off by the Confederate statues controversy and the NFL player protests. And Gillespie’s in-person campaigning regularly features a promise to keep Virginians safe and criticisms of the Latino Victory Fund ad, too.
But Democrats say that Gillespie’s widely seen, Trump-esque television ads are creating a backlash against a candidate who has long championed GOP outreach to minority voters.
“Ed Gillespie’s campaign is a modern version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” Northam campaign spokesman David Turner said. “He uses paid advertising to run the most divisive campaign in Virginia history, and in-person he tries to sound like Mr. Rogers.”
The Democratic Party of Virginia sent out a mailer linking Gillespie to Trump and the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville to black households earlier this month, and an army of door-knockers are urging black and Latino voters to vote on Tuesday as an act of repudiation of Gillespie’s message.
Democrats are on tenterhooks waiting to see if it works on Election Day, with hopes buoyed by limited evidence so far. Early voting in two Northern Virginia cities with heavy Hispanic populations, Manassas and Manassas Park, is up more than 200 percent compared to the 2013 governor’s race, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. Both cities are about one-third Hispanic, according to Census data.
While Gillespie’s ads slash away at Northam on crime and culture, Gillespie bookended the final weeks of his campaign with campaign stops in northern Virginia, accompanied by a senator who unendorsed Trump after the release of the Access Hollywood tape (Ohio’s Rob Portman), a senator who says Trump shouldn’t have access to the nuclear codes (Florida’s Marco Rubio) and a governor who never endorsed the president to begin with (Maryland’s Larry Hogan).
At a Saturday morning rally in vote-rich Fairfax County, Gillespie, Hogan and slew of Virginia Republicans never mentioned the president’s name to a crowd of about 100 people. Instead, Gillespie focused nearly entirely on reviving what he argued was an anemic economy in Virginia. He’s mentioned his numerous policy plans so frequently on the stump they’ve become a laugh line.
“We know why the stakes are so high in this election, because Virginia’s stuck,” Gillespie said, framing the race as a choice between growth and stagnation. “On Tuesday, we’re going to decide: Are we going to have higher taxes or lower taxes? Simple as that.”
At both the Hogan rally and one with Rubio on Monday night in Arcola, Gillespie played up his family’s immigrant roots to a young and diverse crowd. Rubio, the grandson of Cuban immigrants, joked that like Gillespie’s father, he was from Ireland. (“Hence my name, Marc O’Rubio,” the senator said to a mixture of groans and laughter.)
Gillespie has also campaigned with more Trump-friendly figures like Vice President Mike Pence and Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton in other parts of Virginia. But with Election Day approaching, Gillespie’s final validators were looking to cast him as part of something different.
As he urged attendees to help elect Gillespie, Rubio went out of his way to praise the Virginian as positive and forward-looking.
“He’s ready to get to work for you, not to be a partisan national debate society, not to be part of the poison that seems to infect every part of our politics these days,” Rubio said.
Fifteen minutes earlier, according to Advertising Analytics, Gillespie’s campaign had aired an ad in the area accusing Northam of helping sex offenders get guns.
“Ralph Northam called restoring the rights of unrepentant sex offenders one of his greatest feats,” the ad’s narrator said. “Ralph Northam’s policies are risky.”
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