High Stakes, High Costs and Attack Ads: Virginia’s Gubernatorial Election

Heloise Martorell Analysis

4 minute read

Though the Congressional races in the United States are still a year way, the governor’s race in Virginia is imminent and deserves national attention. Lieutenant Governor and Democrat Ralph Northam is running against Republican Ed Gillespie, former Chair of the Republican National Committee and Counselor to the President in the George W. Bush administration. This gubernatorial election will set a precedent on the kind of campaign rhetoric we can expect for the House and Senate elections in 2018. Will Democrats use the same progressive and revolutionary discourse as presidential candidate Bernie Sanders or will they try and appeal to moderate and conservative voters? Will Republicans ride on President Trump’s coattail or will they avoid any kind of association with the White House?

Since President Trump’s election last November, Democrats have lost several special elections in Kansas, South Carolina, Montana, and Georgia. While they gained enough momentum and media attention to pose a threat to the Republican candidates, they did not win a seat in the state and federal legislature. Having said that, the Virginia race is also critical because governors are responsible for redistricting: they can veto or sign the map drawn by the state legislature, currently controlled by Republicans in both chambers. Redistricting occurs every ten years and the next maps will be drawn in 2021, endowing newly elected governors in the upcoming elections with a tremendous amount of sway in local, state, and national elections for the next decade. With the 2010 Census, Republicans managed to reconfigure the districts in order to consolidate their power in Washington and in state legislatures, also known as gerrymandering.

This election is now a culture war between the two parties. Former President Obama came out in support of Northam in Richmond, Virginia whilst Vice President Mike Pence campaigned for Ed Gillespie. The presence of these political figures demonstrates the impact of this election on a national level. President Trump also intervened by showing support for the GOP candidate and attacked Ralph Northam in exactly 140 characters, accusing him of aiding the MS-13 gang. The Gillespie campaign also ran numerous attack ads holding Northam responsible for the resurgence of MS-13 in Virginia and deprecating his support of sanctuary cities. These attacks are based on Northam’s tie breaking vote as Lieutenant Governor which defeated a GOP bill that would have banned sanctuary cities in Virginia. However, there are currently no sanctuary cities in the state. As expected, the Republican candidate accused the Democrat of being soft on crime and aiding illegal immigration whilst the latter accused the former of serving special interests.

Even with the help of attack ads and the party’s support, Ed Gillespie is walking on a thin rope. The nominee cannot be pro-Trump if he wants to win moderates and independents but he cannot use an anti-Trump discourse at the risk of alienating Trump supporters. Ralph Northam benefits from a loyal left-leaning voting base. Whilst the state legislature is Republican controlled, Virginia’s current governor Terry McAuliffe is a Democrat and the state voted for presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in November 2016. Still, Democrats cannot afford overconfidence in this election or any future election in 2018.

As races become more competitive and dependent on media exposure, the challenge to raise money becomes as important as the race itself. Ralph Northam has raised $22,821,447 against Ed Gillespie’s $14,814,109. While these numbers are impressive, they do not come close to the 2010 California gubernatorial race which cost $280 million. Illinois’s primary gubernatorial election is in March yet candidates have already spent $15.6 million in the past three months. A great deal is at stake in these state elections and unfortunately, even gubernatorial races do not attract a great number of voters. Voting turnout consists of party loyalists rather than indecisive moderates.

During the upcoming elections, Democrats must present a strong front. The 2016 Presidential election exposed the party’s vulnerabilities to activism. If the nominees embrace progressive ideals, they might have a chance to beat Republicans. On the other hand, Republicans must not be afraid to oppose President Trump’s policy agenda. Distancing themselves from the White House will allow the nominees to discuss their own political ideas instead of spewing buzz words such as illegal immigration, tax cuts and national security to win votes. Republicans do not need to appeal to white nationalists, they need to remind moderates their vote is worth it. GOP candidates need to bring back the political debate towards discussions of limited government, conservative tax policies, and the free market instead of advocating for school prayer, shaming women who have abortions, and telling voters that the government is after their guns.