Republican Ed Gillespie is reshaping next year’s battle for Congress with a Virginia gubernatorial bid lifted by culture war appeals cribbed directly from President Trump.
Saddled with structural disadvantages, Gillespie has surged into a virtual tie with Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam down the stretch with an advertising campaign that has stoked anxiety about Hispanic gangs and illegal immigrants.
Political operatives in both parties are taking notice, and say, win or lose on Tuesday, Gillespie’s apparent strategic success with independents and suburban voters, as Northam flails, could heavily influence the atmospherics of the midterm campaign.
“The most important thing was that it was close,” said a Republican operative heavily involved in 2018 House races, on condition of anonymity in order to speak candidly about strategy. “This could be seen as a credible message in suburban races across the country next year. That’s my big take away. If it works in the suburbs in Northern Virginia, it can work in suburbs across the whole country.”
Trump lost Virginia, increasingly ethnically and racially diverse, to Democrat Hillary Clinton last year in part because of weakness in the centrist, heavily populated Northern Virginia suburbs that often sway commonwealth elections.
The president is no more popular there now than he was 12 months ago. In the Roanoke College Poll that showed Gillespie and Northam tied at 47 percent, Trump’s approval rating among Virginia voters was cratering at 36 percent.
Meanwhile, the party out of power in the White House historically has the advantage in Virginia gubernatorial contests, always open because incumbents are limited to a single, four-year term (Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe defied the odds when he won four years ago).
If Gillespie can break through with a message that feeds on white suburban unease about security and cultural change in a lower turnout off-year election despite a series of impediments, political operatives monitoring the national environment see a path for Republicans to overcome similar challenges in the midterm.
“Gillespie’s sanctuary cities ads seem like the sort of thing the Republicans could run to gin up their base without necessarily offending swing voters,” said a Democratic operative focused on Senate races. Democrats are playing defense in Senate races next year, with many incumbents running in red states, but are hoping to pick up seats in Arizona and Nevada, where support for and against Trump has divided the GOP.
It's an unlikely move for a man who is Trump’s opposite in background and temperament.
Gillespie, 56, a veteran Republican insider — a former party chairman, advisor to President George W. Bush, and an ex-lobbyist. On the stump, he’s bland but inclusive, taking his pitch to reform education, transportation and improve economic growth to all corners of Virginia’s increasingly ethnically and racially diverse electorate.
But Gillespie’s advertising, on television and radio, digitally and through the mail, is all Trump.
He’s vowed to crack down on MS-13, a Hispanic gang and organized crime syndicate, and prevent sanctuary cities for illegal immigrants. Gillespie also has affirmed support for Confederate statues and opposition to professional football players who kneel during the national anthem to protest racial injustice.
“You’d never take a knee. ... So take a stand on Election Day. Vote Ed Gillespie,” reads an official campaign mailer, taken from Trump’s attacks on the National Football League for its refusal to force players to stand for "The Star-Spangled Banner,” or fire those who refuse.
Overall, Gillespie's numbers have steadily climbed. He’s gone from several points down to tied, or ahead, in several recent polls.
Northam, 58, appears stalled. Indeed, it was the Democrat who found himself in political hot water for culturally incendiary advertising — a video produced by Northam allies that accused Gillespie of racism — not his Republican opponent.
That portends potential problems for the Democrats next year, even as they appear to have the wind at their back. Trump's national approvals are hovering around 40 percent, and House Republicans are defending a 24-seat majority that includes many suburban seats Clinton either won, or narrowly lost, in 2016.
If committed Trump supporters turn out for Gillespie, and he maintains the support of Northern Virginia centrists and his establishment base, it could suggest a blueprint Republicans running for Congress can use to mitigate the president’s low national approval ratings and disappointment with the party has accomplished in Washington.
It could also signal Trump’s culture war isn’t the loser for the Republicans that many inside and outside the party think, at least in the near term.
“The down state [Virginia] pockets that did well for Trump in general — if they turn out for Gillespie, [Democrats should] be concerned that they will turn out to support Republicans across the ballot as we head into the midterms,” said Bruce Haynes, a GOP consultant.