George Wallace, the former Alabama governor and virulent defender of segregation, began his career as a racial moderate.
Wallace refused to join a walkout led by white supremacist “Dixiecrats” while he was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1948. Referring to Wallace’s time as a state court judge, an African American attorney once described him as “the most liberal judge that I had ever practiced law in front of.” During his first bid for Alabama governor, Wallace was endorsed by the NAACP; his opponent was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.
It wasn’t until after the Klan’s candidate won that Wallace swore he would never be “outn*ggered” again in a political race. “I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been part of my career, and nobody listened,” Wallace said to a supporter who questioned the tactics that brought him to the governor’s mansion. “And then I began talking about n*ggers, and they stomped the floor.”
Last June, Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie had a similar experience. Gillespie was supposed to be the prohibitive favorite for his party’s nomination, yet he won by barely more than one point over his race-baiting opponent Corey Stewart. After Stewart’s near-victory in the primary, Gillespie got the message loud and clear about how he needed to appeal to much of his base.
Stewart ran the kind of campaign that, until Donald Trump’s triumphant second-place finish in the U.S. presidential election, seemed more like a throwback to the age of Wallace than the sort of thing that could fly in the nation that elected Barack Obama. “No Robert E. Lee monument should come down. That man is a hero & an honorable man,” Stewart tweeted about a man who was notoriously cruel toward his slaves and who committed treason in defense of slavery. At another point, Stewart claimed that “nothing is worse than a Yankee telling a Southerner that his monuments don’t matter.” (Stewart was born in Minnesota.)
Gillespie appears to have been taking notes. One of Gillespie’s ads focuses entirely on a single issue — claiming Democratic candidate Ralph Northam “will take our statutes down, Ed Gillespie will preserve them.” His campaign flyers tap into cultural hatreds against black NFL players protesting racism in the United States — “you’d never take a knee . . . so take a stand on election day,” one reads. Many of his ads do little more than imply that, if Northam wins, you will be killed by scary-looking Latino men with tattoos.
“It feels like my campaign, doesn’t it?” Stewart commented to the Washington Post about Gillespie’s message. “I feel vindicated by it. What is it that they say? Imitation is the best form of flattery.”
Anti-Latino racism is an odd fit for someone with Gillespie’s background. He’s a creature of the GOP’s business wing, not its culture warriors. While he wasn’t working directly in Republican politics, Gillespie was a lobbyist representing companies like Bank of America, Anthem, Microsoft, and Enron. The candidate served as Republican National Committee chair under President George W. Bush, and then as counselor to President Bush — a president who urged his party to move left on immigration and supported legislation similar to the comprehensive immigration reform pushed by President Obama.
And yet, like George Wallace before him, Gillespie decided that he cared more about winning than he does about defending the humanity of people of color.
As MSNBC host Chris Hayes noted on Twitter, this election isn’t just a crucial moment for the state of Virginia — among other things, the winner of the state gubernatorial race is likely to decide whether the state legislature is able to enact voter suppression laws and gerrymandered maps — but it is also likely to shape the GOP’s strategy for years to come.
Secretary Hillary Clinton beat Trump in Virginia by a wider margin than Obama beat Republican candidate Mitt Romney in 2012. The state appeared to resist Trump’s call for a politics of explicit racism. If Gillespie prevails, that will suggest that this kind of racial politics is even more potent than it was in 2016.
It will also suggest that something fundamental has changed among a segment of white voters.
Consider former Republican Sen. George Allen, who was once a juggernaut in Virginia politics. He won his 1993 gubernatorial race with over 58 percent of the vote. He defeated a two-term incumbent to become a senator in 2001, and was widely considered to be a strong contender for the GOP presidential nomination in 2008. That is, until he used a racial slur.
At a campaign event in 2006, Allen used the term “macaca” — a slur developed by white Europeans living in North Africa derived from the Bantu word for monkey, and typically deployed against black people — against a Democratic campaign volunteer of Indian descent. The fallout was explosive; the incident ended up being the turning point in the campaign. The onetime Republican powerhouse narrowly lost his seat to Democrat Jim Webb.
Just over a decade ago, Allen’s use of a single, racist word in a single, ill-considered gaffe was enough to derail his entire career. Gillespie, meanwhile, has made racism — and its close cousin, racial resentment — one of the central themes of his campaigns. It pervades his ads and animates his media appearances. George Allen apologized for his brief lapse into explicit racism. Gillespie presses on with his campaign.
Gillespie appears to be betting hard that many of the very same voters who rejected Allen’s descent into racism will embrace prouder, more open appeals to prejudice. At the very least, Gillespie is betting that there is a critical mass of white voters who are more offended by allegations of racism than they are by actual racism. This week, we’ll find out if he is right.