Ed Gillespie’s race-baiting didn’t win, but it was still too close for comfort

It never should have been this close to begin with.

Virginia Gov.-elect Ralph Northam celebrates his election victory with his wife Pam and daughter Aubrey, right, and Dorothy McAuliffe (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
Virginia Gov.-elect Ralph Northam celebrates his election victory with his wife Pam and daughter Aubrey, right, and Dorothy McAuliffe (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

After all the debate over the hot-button topic of race in the Virginia gubernatorial election, does Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D) decisive victory over GOP challenger Ed Gillespie prove that voters see past racist campaign messaging and reject overt dog-whistle appeals intended to drive up support among white voters?

If only politics could be that straightforward and simple. But it ain’t necessarily so.

Yes, based on preliminary exit polls, it appears that Northam ran strong among non-white voters across the state, capturing nearly 8 in 10 votes from people of color. In particular, African Americans account for about 20 percent of Virginia’s electorate and strong black turnout has been decisive in recent statewide elections. Exit polls also suggest Northam won about 7 in 10 of the ballots in the vote-rich Northern Virginia suburbs outside Washington, D.C. and led by 20 points in his native Hampton Roads area.

By contrast, Gillespie was popular in the state’s less populated area in the rural and western mountains of Virginia, garnering about 7 in 10 votes cast. Statewide, Gillespie was more popular among both white men (63 percent) and white women (51 percent).

The bottom line is that revulsion to Trump-branded racism led to heavy turnout in the state’s most populous and racially diverse regions and bolstered Northam. Gillespie couldn’t make up the difference by appealing to a diminishing population of white, elderly, and conservative voters.

The major question political pundits have been looking to the Virginia elections to answer is whether Trump’s 2016 win — which showed it was possible to win with overtly racist and nativist appeals aimed primarily at white voters — can be replicated in statewide and congressional districts next year. 

No doubt aware of how the Virginia race may impact his political standing, Trump tweeted support for Gillespie as voters prepared to enter the polls in the early morning hours on Election Day. And, in the fashion that’s becoming increasingly common for him, Trump used racially-coded fears of crime and immigrants to urge Virginians to vote for Gillespie.

Trump remains popular only among an eroding base of die-hard loyalists with about 36 percent of Americans expressing approval of his leadership this week, down from about 44 percent at the 100-day mark of his administration.

Over the past century or so, Virginia has tilted from blue to red to purple to light blue, and was the only state in the old Confederacy to send its Electoral College support to Hillary Clinton last year.

What’s more, a Washington Post poll, conducted in the state during the closing days of the campaign, showed nearly three out of five (59 percent) likely voters disapproved of Trump and nearly as many (57 percent) said their view of the president was “very” or “fairly” important in their voting decision for governor.

All these pre-voting political indices suggested the contest should be a slam dunk for Democrats and that Northam would have had the wind at his back, right? Not so fast.

Long considered a moderate and establishment Republican, Gillespie trailed Northam by double digits going into the last month the campaign, but closed a 13-point gap to just 5 points (that’s nearly within the margin of error) with a week before the polls opened.

Gillespie made a contest of it largely with ads that played to voters’ racist and xenophobic fears, pulled directly from the Trump playbook. He seized on the tragedy of the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville with ads that embraced Confederate war monuments. He tried to portray Northam as supportive of violent immigrant gangs such as MS-13. And Gillespie tapped into Trump’s racist criticism of black professional athletes who choose to protest during the national anthem by sending out flyers that attacked NFL players who “take a knee” to draw attention to police abuse of black people.

From its outset, this was a political campaign that should never have been in doubt. But Gillespie changed the electoral map by going all-in with a racist advertising campaign. In fact, a credible argument should be made that the Commonwealth’s gubernatorial campaign was as closely watched and its outcome so uncertain precisely because Gillespie embraced the race-baiting campaign style and substance that a year earlier propelled Trump into the White House.

Gillespie’s base of support was largely the same group of voters who sent Donald Trump to the White House a year ago. It’s disappointing that he did as well with them as the early reviews of the election seem to suggest.

Northam, a laconic campaigner, didn’t help his cause either. The race was unnecessarily close because the Democrat stumbled to the finish line despite a series of self-inflicted wounds such as promising to work with Trump to the dismay of many Democrats and pledging to ban sanctuary cities, angering immigrant rights activists.

But make no mistake about it: Racist appeals were a virulent factor in this year’s Virginia gubernatorial race. They didn’t work this time, most likely because Gillespie wasn’t charming or forceful enough to make enough voters believe in him. But as Trump demonstrated, a charismatic and telegenic campaigner could very well pull it off again in future elections.

Trump believes this to be true, as well. The president chastised Gillespie for losing, saying he didn’t hew enough to Trumpian politics. “Ed Gillespie worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for,” Mr. Trump said on Twitter Tuesday night as it became clear the GOP candidate wouldn’t win.

The fact that Gillespie isn’t going to the governor’s mansion in Richmond isn’t the real test of racism’s power over our politics. No, the real measure would have been in the universal repudiation of such vile attitudes and the automatic refusal of any serious candidate to dare employ them.