President Donald Trump explained away Tuesday night’s rout of his party on Twitter by complaining that Ed Gillespie, the GOP candidate for Virginia governor, had not embraced him tightly enough. “Ed Gillespie worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for,” Trump assessed.
Yet Gillespie’s most high-profile move in the campaign was a fear-mongering, race-baiting ad ripped from the 1980s about a gang from the 1980s. What could be more Trump?
The Gillespie campaign carpeted the state with advertising that warned about MS-13, a gang tied to immigrants from El Salvador, claiming that any move to shield immigrants from deportation through so-called sanctuary cities would invite violent predators into Virginia communities. For voters in Virginia, the message fell flat.
In the lobby of Potomac Middle School in Dumfries, several voters spoke to The Intercept to express anger at the wave of anti-immigrant advertising.
Chris White, a Virginia resident who came to vote with his family, said he was unhappy with Gillespie’s negative advertisements and cast his vote for the Democrat Ralph Northam. “They were typical, wanted to placate to the lowest common denominator, fear, really,” said White. “On some level, they work,” he added, shrugging.
Catherine Hazimi said she thought the sanctuary city ads were “incredibly misleading.” After seeing a cascade of Gillespie advertising, she said she looked up the issue and found that Virginia had no sanctuary cities.
“You can’t turn on the TV without seeing a negative ad,” Hazimi said. The local media, with the exception of the Washington Post, she added, provided little context for voters. “They just want to do a numbers race,” she said, referencing local media’s obsession with publishing polls.
George Chavis said although he has become more conservative with age, he voted Democratic because he was concerned primarily with the state of the criminal justice and the system of bail, which he called “profoundly unjust.” The Gillespie ads, he added, were designed to pander to a conservative base, but he found them to be “detrimental.”
“It’s just another sign of division. MS-13 gangs have always been an issue. They’ve always been around. It’s just political propaganda,” said A.J., another voter who came to the polls with his family.
Even some local Republicans expressed regret that the GOP state message was so hard-edged.
Bruce Brown, a member of the Alexandria Young Republicans, said that he thought the Republican campaign ads focusing on “sanctuary cities” and MS-13 “were terrible, they were stupid.”
“In a perfect world, I wish he had not talked about those things, but I understand why he had to do it,” Brown said. “Politics is hardball.”
At an election night gathering of Republican activists in Ramparts Tavern, a bar and restaurant in Alexandria, the GOP faithful took in the gloomy results over plates of quesadillas and beer.
Brown, with a sigh, said he wished voters knew more about Gillespie’s “focus on jobs, the economy, transportation.”
The television ads were aired directly by Gillespie’s campaign, which relied on regular infusions of cash from the Republican Governors Association, a group funded by major corporations, such as Koch Industries, Nestle, the Anschutz Corp., McKesson, AstraZeneca, Centene, and PepsiCo, among many other donors.