I was at work Tuesday night and thus didn’t get to pay a whole lot of attention to the elections as they were occurring but I was able to hear about the results when I got home that night. To me what happened in Virginia specifically, especially in the gubernatorial race was a testament to the power of a campaign that revolved around politics of hope & unity, vs a campaign centered around the politics of fear & division. I am still reading, reacting to, and contemplating what the end results of Virginia’s elections mean for the future of politics in this country but I wanted to sit down and write out my thoughts on the race since I have family in Virginia, and I myself am involved in a political campaign in North Carolina.
What Happened To Ed Gillespie?
A lot of people writing about the Virginia gubernatorial race don’t mention the long history of Ed Gillespie. His history matters in the context of this race because it shows what happens when once normal Republicans become even partially Trumpian. Ed Gillespie was once a normal Republican politician, even quite possibly as recently as 2013, but things began to change for the worse with the emergence of Donald J. Trump. Ed Gillespie is just one politician whose tactics have shifted from traditional campaigning to whatever nonsense is going on now, by airing ads that linked Ralph Northam (his Democratic rival) to not only a desire to pass significant reforms to voting rights restorations for felons universally but also to protecting and safeguarding dangerous Hispanic and Latinx criminals in the form of the MS-13 gang thanks to Ralph Northam’s unusual history with policies related to sanctuary cities (in order to make sense of this complicated issue I recommend reading the article I linked, but if you won’t here’s a basic summary: last year the Republican Virginia Senate leader voted against a bill to ban sanctuary cities in Virginia and some say that this might have been to force Northam to vote either for or against it. Ralph voted against it and after that a bit of a stretch allows people to come to the conclusion that Northam supports sanctuary cities which isn’t true and ignores the fact that Northam once wanted tougher enforcement of immigration protocols against undocumented individuals and moderated his stance on this issue during this race).
Ed Gillespie has gone from being a normal conservative politician (well as normal as one can be with the influence and wealth he has acquired over the years) to being someone with rhetoric & politics not entirely dissimilar to Trump’s own rhetoric and politics, which Northam’s campaign has blasted him for. This characterizes a shift for the man who once helped George W. Bush win 44% of the Hispanic vote in 2004. Gillespie decided to experiment with Trumpian rhetoric and imagery. It cost him the election which must really hurt given how hard his campaign worked at getting fundraisers and the fact that the Republican Governor’s Association gave them a hefty 2.8 million dollar donation.
A Difference In Politics & Tone:
Despite the fact that Ed Gillespie aggressively went after Northam in his campaign ads Northam didn’t particularly reciprocate. There was an aggressive ad from the Latino Victory Fund but it was harshly criticized by many people including Democrats and progressives. I’ll be sharing some of the campaign ads on both sides down below but the first ad I’ll be showing is the Latino Victory Fund’s ad which wasn’t authorized by the Northam campaign and shouldn’t be seen as something they are necessarily okay with.
There is a consistent difference in tone between the two campaign’s ads. Even in the thumbnails, there are differences that enable you to see what the campaigns are saying from the start. When I see these ads (and these aren’t all of the ads, these are just the more popular ones Ed Gillaspie does have a few truly positive ones on his YouTube channel but they are vastly overshadowed by his negative ones) one of the things I can tell is that Ralph wants people to vote for him, but it feels like Ed just wants people to not vote for Ralph. Seeing these ads I can see why someone would want to vote for Ralph, but Ed’s ads don’t inspire the same feeling and of course I’m biased as a progressive Democrat but still, I’m sure at least some people could see the content of these ads and understand what I’m saying here. If you listen to some of Ed’s ads that I didn’t share here they continue to try and paint Ralph in a negative light but they don’t do a whole lot when it comes to making Ed look good on his own, only that he’s better than Ralph (and usually only at the end of the ads where Ed states why he’s better) and that won’t convince a lot of people to get out and support someone.
Ralph tapped into the politics of hoping for a better future. Ed didn’t. He used negative rhetoric, imagery, and tapped into some of the same frustration that Trump tapped into but it didn’t work for him and it won’t work for Republicans in highly competitive areas. Ed didn’t try to inspire people and Ralph did. Ralph focused on his own campaign in advertising and his ads reflect that, and Ed didn’t focus so much on his own campaign in advertising which was a mistake even if his ads are more easily remembered than Ralph’s were. If I had been a Virginian who had been about to vote for governor I’d know the sort of person I’d be voting for based off of Ralph Northam’s ads, but I wouldn’t based off of Ed Gillespie’s ads and that matters.
Part of why this matters is that some research has shown that while negative ads are more memorable (and the way this campaign was reported on outside of Virginia definitely reflects that) than positive ones they don’t particularly seem to increase voter turnout or to have a decisive effect on people’s voting choices. This is, of course, a complicated issue and shouldn’t be oversimplified so I recommend also checking out Journalist Resources article on the matter of political and campaign ads because it contains lots of neat information worth knowing whenever you think about how a political ad affected your opinions on politicians or political issues.
This moment also needs to be a moment of clarity for Republicans who are unsure of what direction to take their party and their campaign. Taking their party further right won’t make the Democrats go further right as well. Democrats have seen that staying in the middle in some places and being left in others can win them elections, but we know that we won’t beat Republicans by going the direction they want us too. We’ve learned from these past few elections and we know that we can win.
I genuinely hope that Democratic leaders learn from this campaign. If they do that then at this time in 2018 we as progressives will be a lot closer to fulfilling our goals. We can only hope for the best and do our best within the party to push it in the correct direction from this point on.