Race-Baiting 2017 GOP Campaigns Could Infect the 2018 Elections

Ed Gillespie of Virginia and Kim Guadagno of New Jersey are unlikely vehicles for a Trump-style law-and-order campaign. But they’re both gambling on it working. Photo: Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post/Getty Images; Julio Cortez/AP

In the final days before the 2017 off-year gubernatorial election in Virginia, conflicting polling data cloaked the final result. But no matter who you think is ahead, the central question of the campaign is this: Will Republican candidate Ed Gillespie’s surprising and persistent deployment of old-school racist law-and-order messaging work? If it works, Republicans are going to emulate it as they run in 2018. If it doesn’t, a lot of Democrats (and everyone else who doesn’t like race-baiting) will heave a sigh of relief that will be heard all over the country.

Gillespie’s heavy reliance on the intersecting culture-war themes of crime, immigration, and scary brown and black people (the former represented by the MS-13 gang and the latter by felons regaining their rights) was initially a surprise. It’s not the sort of thing he was known for in his long career as a consummate Establishment Republican, and the Old Dominion hasn’t shown much support for the pol most identified with the current Gillespie message, the president of the United States. Some thought he was just trying to nail down the votes of the savagely Trumpist candidate he narrowly beat in the GOP primary, Cory Stewart, before pivoting to less divisive themes. But less than two weeks out, Gillespie’s still at it.

As Ron Brownstein explains, the success or failure of Gillespie’s gambit depends on how it affects both turnout and candidate preference in the three groups of voters that make up the electorate: non-college-educated whites (presumably the target audience for the nastygrams Gillespie has been sending); college-educated whites (who could react against Gillespie or vote for him on other issues); and nonwhite voters, who might intensely dislike Gillespie’s tactics but who also typically don’t show up proportionately for non-presidential elections.

For all the racial signaling in Trump’s 2016 campaign, turnout compared with 2012 remained flat nationally among Latinos and declined among African Americans. If minorities in Virginia fail to vote in higher numbers than usual, even after Gillespie’s racial provocations, more Republicans will undoubtedly feel emboldened to follow him down that road. 

Even a Gillespie loss, notes Brownstein, could make his campaign influential in states with a larger white-working-class vote if this demographic in fact rallies to the longtime lobbyist and national party figure.

There’s another sign Gillespie’s turn to tactics associated with race-bating dating back to the days of George Wallace could spread elsewhere: It’s already happening in the other gubernatorial campaign that concludes on November 7, in New Jersey, where Kim Guadagno is suddenly talking about immigrant criminality, as the New York Times reports:

During the last debate, Ms. Guadagno referred to undocumented immigrants as “illegal aliens’’ who were potentially violent criminals, as she described in gruesome details two crimes committed by suspects who were in the country illegally. And on Monday, her campaign proposed a ban on so-called sanctuary cities that would “give the governor authority to withhold funding or issue fines to sanctuary cities harboring violent criminals.”

Ms. Guadagno’s comments regarding immigration came after a recent advertisement by her campaign that alludes to a crime in Newark 10 years ago — the execution-style killings of three young people in a schoolyard — and highlights one of the accused as being an “illegal alien and child rapist.’’

She may be outdoing Gillespie with this tack. And if possible, she’s an even less likely vehicle for a racially loaded law-’n’-order campaign than the Virginian. She’s never been notably friendly toward Donald Trump. And Guadagno is not known as a hard-core conservative:

[S]he holds positions that members of the more conservative wing of the Republican Party would find anathema. From climate change (she supports renewable energy investment) to abortion (she has been a supporter of abortion rights her entire career), Ms. Guadagno has not shown a rigid adherence to the party’s platform or conservative ethos.

But she has now clearly abandoned her campaign-long preoccupation with property taxes to stress the sudden urgent threat of immigrant crime. It even won her an appearance on Fox & Friends.

Nobody much thinks Kim Guadagno is actually going to win; she’s been trailing Democrat Phil Murphy by double digits in every poll taken this year. She’s at a financial disadvantage, and is under the large and negative shadow of Chris Christie, with whom she has served as lieutenant governor the last eight years.

But if she does better than expected with this new culture-based tack, particularly if it’s combined with a better-than-expected performance by Gillespie, we can all expect Campaign 2018 to assume a much more sinister and divisive tone than would otherwise be the case. These 2017 bellwethers could be hellwethers.

Race-Baiting 2017 GOP Campaigns Could Infect the Midterms