MARION, Virginia, October 17 – There are a lot of ways to fall in love with Virginia. You could kayak along the Chesapeake shores, which America’s earliest European immigrants, including Captain John Smith, explored awestuck from their base at Jamestown. You can tour Virginia’s matchless historic sites, including not only presidential homes, colonial settlements and battelfields, but also Yorktown and Appomattox where the American Revolution and Civil War ended. Or just take a ride on Skyline Drive along the glorious Blue Ridge mountains.
But for political junkies, I would reccomend cruising along I-81, which traverses Virginia’s northwest to southwest, roughly parallel to the border the state shares with West Virginia. It’s a beautiful drive along several stretches, but the real political interest is the people in the small towns, like Marion, a few miles from the NC and TN state lines.
The southwestern region of VA has gotten recent attention as a key conservative stronghold in a state that has been trending in a blue direction in the last three presidential elections. While the area around Dulles airport is sometimes called the “high-tech coridor” of the east, there is also a high patents/population ratio in southwest Virginia, clustered around Virginia Tech. But the homes and businesses along I-81 are peopled with mostly white blue collar and middle class families, along with a smaller percentage of African Americans and Latinos.
The latter are frequently employed in construction, road-building and restaurants, like “Mi Puerto” in Marion, where I saw great affection between the highly professional and friendly Mexican-American staff and the local predominantly-white families. It was striking because I had been reading that very day about “rising tensions” between Latinos and white Virginians, largely as a result of fear-mongering about a Central American gang, emanating from the campaign of Republican candidate for Governor Ed Gillespie. One of his campaign ads is among the most repulsive example of immigrant-bashing I have seen. As Yvette Cabrera describes the ad at ThinkProgress:
In the ad, which began airing in mid-September, a narrator warns Virginia residents of the menacing threat of the [Latino] MS-13 gang while Coll’s photograph, stamped with the words “Kill, Rape, Control,” flashes across the screen. Gillespie’s commercial tries to pin the increase in MS-13 violence on his Democratic rival, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, and criticizes the democrat for his vote against a Virginia bill that would have banned sanctuary cities, which do not actually exist in Virginia.
But the gang members in Coll’s photograph are not actually MS-13 gang members, nor were they photographed in Virginia. The photograph features Barrio 18 gang members that Coll photographed inside a prison in El Salvador. In fact, Barrio 18, a faction of the Sureños gang, is a rival of the MS-13 gang.
MS-13 has a very small presence in northern Virginia, and they are mostly from El Salvador. But Gillespie and the Republicans amplify a few incidents to spread fear and distrust of Latinos in general to steer votes away from Northam.
Gillespie is not a garden-variety Republican gubernatorial candidate. He is also a shrewd political strategist who has been credited with spearheading the GOP’s impressive victories in state politics in recent years, including the Republican pick-up of about 1,000 seats in state legislatures across the U.S. during the Obama Administration. He has been particularly adept at leveraging “cultural issues” to distract voters from the GOP’s dubious economic policies.
What Gillespie lacks in charisma and inspirational ability, he makes up with his strategic chops. That’s a good reason why Democrats should not get overconfident about Democratic candidate Ralph Northam’s lead in the polls (6.8 percent in the Real Clear Politics poll average), and mobilize turnout with the same energetic commitment needed as if the polls showed a dead heat. Gillespie, who lost his 2014 race to Sen. Mark Warner by less than half of one percent, knows how to feast on Democratic indiference in non-presidential elections.
Both Gillespie and Northam are nervous about Trump’s involvement in the campaign. Bush, Obama, Pence and Biden have already campaigned for their party’s nominee. But Gillespie is certainly emulating Trump’s immigrant-bashing and politics of cultural distraction as core elements of his strategy.
In the end, however, the outcome of this marquee off-year race on November 7th may depend on the turnout of northern Virginia liberals and moderates, who especially dislike Gillespie’s opposition to the reproduction rights of women, or conversely, conservatives in the Richmond burbs and exurbs. In either case, It’s all about GOTV now.
Democrats have reason to hope that Gillespie’s Latino-bashing will fail, as a result of the decency of the majority of Virginia’s middle-class whites who won’t deny the clear reality that the overwhelming majority of Hispanics are hard-working, law-abiding and sincerely religious people who enrich the culture and prosperity of their state.
A Gillespie victory would be an upset. If Northam wins, it will be an indication that Democrats are getting focused on the imperative of mobilizing turnout in off-year elections. If he wins big, it will fuel hopes for a ‘blue wave’ election next year and perhaps 2020 – and that would give Democrats some needed optimism.