Not a winning strategy
Republican Ed Gillespie lost his bid to become Virginia governor last week by running one of the most cynical campaigns in recent memory. Gillespie is no racist, but he appealed directly to racism during the campaign. In a state with a growing Latino and immigrant population, four of his campaign ads focused on MS-13, a violent Latino gang, with the words “Kill, Rape, Control” flashing across the screen. But Virginia has one of the lowest violent-crime rates in the country, and the images used in the ad weren’t even MS-13 members, much less Virginia residents, with the most frightening photos of heavily tattooed men taken in a prison in El Salvador. Not content to try to scare Virginians into voting for him, Gillespie dog-whistled a favorite alt-right meme as well, promising to protect “our” heritage, by which he meant displaying Confederate statues on public grounds. But Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis aren’t exactly heroes to the 20 percent of Virginia voters who are African-American.
Gillespie’s campaign advisers convinced him that such appeals were his only chance of winning. They were wrong, but even if they had turned out to be right, is winning the only thing that matters today? Gillespie once embraced the notion that reaching out to Hispanics and others who are not part of the traditional base of the GOP was badly needed, even championing a path toward legal status for undocumented immigrants. When Republican gubernatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore lost in 2005, Gillespie, who had just finished his first stint as Republican National Committee chair, blamed a series of anti-illegal-immigration ads for Kilgore’s defeat. But with the siren call of Trumpists beckoning, Gillespie sailed to defeat on even more egregious ads than Kilgore’s.
President Trump quickly blamed Gillespie’s loss on the candidate’s failure “to embrace (Trump) or what (Trump stands) for.” It’s true Gillespie didn’t campaign with Trump, but the president lost the state in 2016, and he is less popular today than he was a year ago. If anything, Gillespie lost because he tried to morph into Trump, not run away from the president’s toxic brand of politics. It should be a lesson to Republican candidates around the country, particularly those — and there are many — who don’t share the president’s views on race and immigration.
America is not a racist country, and appeals to racism turn off far more voters than they appeal to. Americans were horrified by what happened in Charlottesville this summer, with white nationalists shouting “Jews will not replace us” as they marched through the city to oppose the removal of Confederate statues on public grounds, with one young woman killed when a self-described neo-Nazi ran his car into the crowd. Nor is anti-immigration fervor gripping the country. Exit polls in Virginia show that the No. 1 issue on voters’ minds was health care. Immigration was the top voting issue for only about 12 percent of Virginians, ranking below all others except abortion. And while immigrants have changed the face of Virginia over the last 20 years, with about 1 in 8 residents now foreign-born, those immigrants have helped revitalize Virginia’s economy and are neighbors, co-workers, friends and family to many native-born voters — not to mention that immigrants who have naturalized vote, too.
If Republicans hope to retain control of Congress in next year’s election, they had better figure out a better strategy than Ed Gillespie’s. Given the president’s unpopularity — he’s the least-popular president one year after his election than any president since polling began, with less than 40 percent approval — Trumpism isn’t a winning message. Americans are fed up with hate and scapegoating, especially when it is accompanied by incompetence and the failure to get any meaningful legislation through Congress. If Republicans learned anything Tuesday night, it should be that Trump doesn’t help the GOP; and when the GOP loses, he’s quick to disassociate himself from the party and its candidates. With friends like Donald Trump, who needs enemies?