Ralph Northam’s larger-than-expected victory in yesterday’s election for Virginia governor represented more than a needed morale boost for Democrats.
It also signaled a repudiation of Gillespie’s campaign tactics. In recent weeks, Gillespie, who once seemed the embodiment of the bland, establishment Republican, turned to a fear-mongering campaign. His ads stoked fears of Sanctuary Cities providing refuge for the the MS-13 gang (this despite the fact that Virginia already bans Sanctuary Cities).
Supporters and opponents alike suggested that this strategy reflected Gillespie’s embrace of Trumpism. That’s true, to a point. Trump has certainly sown seeds of discord along racial and ethnic lines since the early days of his campaign.
But playing to existing bigotry to win an election long predates Donald Trump. Observers of Gillespie’s campaign drew parallels to George H.W. Bush’s “Willie Horton” commercial. That ad, which Bush used against his Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis, in 1988, played on fears of crime committed by African Americans. As Gillespie did, the Bush campaign linked racist assumptions with the implication that a Democrat would prove to be soft on crime.
Though Dukakis had been competitive, even in the lead, for much of the campaign, his poll numbers collapsed in the fall. The Willie Horton ad drew much of the blame when Dukakis lost in a landslide to Bush.
More recently, Republicans played to racist assumptions in an ad in the competitive Senate race in Tennessee in 2006. Democrat Harold Ford, Jr., was running a close race with now (and soon to be retired) Senator Bob Corker. In the GOP’s ad, a white woman claimed she had met Ford, an African American, at a “Playboy party”. She implored “Harold” to “call me.” Though this ad didn’t raise fears of crime, but observers quickly noted its attempt to appeal to voters who objected to interracial relationships.
Though the race between Ford and Corker had tightened to a near tie, Corker opened up a lead after the release of this ad. Tennessee proved to be the one close Senate election that Democrats did not win in what was otherwise a wave year form them.
The point, which is somewhat obscured by Northam’s larger-than-expected victory, is that this incendiary style of campaigning has a long history in American politics. Even more troublingly, it has a record of success. Indeed, far from being a product of Trump’s presidency, it reflects a larger phenomenon in U.S. politics that helped give rise to Trump.
Those of us who hope for a higher level of political discourse can be glad that, in this case, a campaign based on bigotry failed. But Ed Gillespie will certainly not be the candidate who attempts to win by such means. Especially in the age of Trump, with dozens of contentious races on the horizon in 2018, those of us who reject such tactics have little reason to rest easy.