Election 2020

Did Charlottesville Cost Ed Gillespie the Virginia Governor's Race?

Last Tuesday, Democrat Ralph Northam defeated Republican Ed Gillespie in the Virginia governor’s race. Northam had branded Gillespie a white nationalist in league with the rioters in Charlottesville this past summer, and some have suggested those riots cost Republicans the election. An analysis of exit polls points in the opposite direction, however.

On Saturday, the Associated Press (AP) reported that Charlottesville “loomed large” in the minds of many voters.

The Rev. Seth Wispelwey, who protested against the white nationalists in Charlottesville, said voters “had their consciences scandalized by this summer in Virginia.” He noted that in the state House, conservative white men were replaced by “candidates who represent precisely who the white supremacists seek to dehumanize.”

Nikuyah Walker, a black Charlottesville native who protested local leaders’ responses to the riots, won election to the Charlottesville City Council. Jalane Schmidt, a local activist and associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, argued there was a clear link between the riots and Walker’s victory.

The AP report cited the mailer Northam sent to Democrats, connecting Gillespie to Charlottesville — despite Gillespie’s clear and early condemnations of the riots. The Republican did indeed oppose the removal of Confederate monuments, however. The mailer urged Democrats to “stand up to hate.”

Bruce Smith, a black 62-year-old Navy veteran, told the AP that Gillespie echoed Trump’s position on Confederate monuments and immigration. “He was basically talking like Trump,” Smith said. “So when I heard that, I realized, this guy right here is a supporter of Trump’s nasty ways and bigoted ways.”

Exit polls do suggest dislike for Trump motivated Democrats to turn out last week. Black voters heavily supported Northam, and about 40 percent of voters said they would only trust Northam on race issues.

So did Charlottesville hand Northam the governorship? Did Northam’s attacks on Gillespie — tying him to Charlottesville and to Trump — cause his victory?

This is a particularly vexing question, because the left’s branding Gillespie a racist did not stop with the Charlottesville mailer. Just over a week before the election, a group called the Latino Victory Fund (LVF) launched a horrific video ad portraying Gillespie supporters as genocidal white supremacists. The ad showed black, Latino, and Muslim kids running from a pickup truck that would run them over. It ended with a question, “Is this what Donald Trump and Ed Gillespie mean by ‘the American dream’?”

Northam refused to condemn the ad. While he said he himself would never approve such a message, his campaign reported the ad as an “in-kind contribution” from LVF, suggesting cooperation between the Northam campaign and the organization branding Gillespie supporters genocidal white terrorists.

Worse, sitting Governor Terry McAuliffe, who had anointed Northam his successor, said Gillespie’s campaign was “the most racist campaign in Virginia history.” This was particularly rich, given that Virginia is notorious for banning interracial marriage, passing Jim Crow laws, and supporting slavery in the Civil War. Democrat rhetoric had hit insanity levels, and Northam still won.

If the LVF ad and the attacks on Gillespie as a white supremacist really did motivate Democrats and give Northam the governorship, that would suggest that Democrats are so blindly loyal that they will willfully ignore slander of the highest magnitude and even vote for a Democrat who brands his GOP opponent a white supremacist after the Republican clearly and consistently condemned Charlottesville. If the AP report is correct, any solution to America’s polarization would be dashed — permanently.

Exit polls revealed a different story, however. According to NBC News, a full 80 percent of voters said they had made up their minds before the last week of the election. A full 63 percent said they made up their minds before October. This does not prove that Charlottesville had no impact on the race, but it does suggest that Democrats were not motivated to turn out simply because of the hateful LVF ad and the slanderous Charlottesville mailer.

Furthermore, there are many other explanations for Northam’s victory.

According to the NBC News exit polls, a plurality of voters(39 percent) said health care was the most important issue to them, more than gun policy (17 percent), taxes (15 percent), immigration (12 percent) and abortion (8 percent). Northam handily won among voters concerned about health care (77 percent to Gillespie’s 23 percent), while Gillespie won on taxes and immigration and the candidates tied on gun policy.

President Trump also polarized the Virginia electorate. More than half (57 percent) said they disapproved of Trump’s job as president, and of these, a whopping 87 percent voted Northam. Less than half (40 percent) approved of Trump, and 91 percent of them voted Gillespie.

Northam’s victory could also reflect voters’ satisfaction with the current governor, Terry McAuliffe. More than half of Virginians (54 percent) said they approved of his job as governor, while only 41 percent said they disapproved. Similarly, only 17 percent of voters said Virginia’s economy was getting worse, while about half (48 percent) said it was staying the same, and 32 percent said it was improving.

There is one final — and important — piece of evidence suggesting the Charlottesville issue did not decide the governor election. More than half (57 percent) of Virginians said monuments to Confederate leaders on government property should be left in place. Only 38 percent said they should be removed.

If this issue had been the deciding one in the race, Gillespie would have won handedly, just as Northam actually did. Even though most Virginians supported keeping Confederate monuments, only 71 percent of those who did voted Gillespie, while 27 percent of them voted for Northam. Those who opposed the monuments broke Northam, 91 percent to 8 percent.

Opposition to Confederate monuments may galvanize some among the Democratic base, but it is not likely to convince moderates to support Democrats. More Democrats may have voted last week because of the Charlottesville-Confederate monuments issue, but support for McAuliffe, satisfaction with Virginia’s economy, and opposition to Trump better explain Northam’s victory.

It is a travesty that Northam won. This candidate had connections with the loathsome LVF ad, launched an utterly false mailer, and partnered with a governor who actually said that Gillespie’s campaign was the most racist in Virginia history. Candidates should not be able to get away with this.

But Americans should not learn the wrong lesson from Northam’s win. The Democrat didn’t win because he branded his opponent a genocidal white supremacist. Indeed, there is reason to hope he won in spite of doing this.

If Democrats start branding Republicans across the country white supremacists, thinking that this strategy worked for Northam, they may be sorely disappointed.