Fear is a bad look for a candidate. Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie has it smeared all over his face and oozing from every pore. Republican Gillespie was likely a bit shaken after his flaccid primary performance against Confederacy apologist and right-wing loon Corey Stewart. Instead of cruising to an easy victory against an under-financed, less well-known, and decidedly crazypants opponent, Gillespie eked out a win by a mere 1.2 percent margin over Stewart, shocking basically everybody.
But just as frightening for Gillespie on primary night was the abysmal turnout for Republicans overall. Including distant-third place finisher Frank Wagner, only 365,782 voters showed up for the GOP primary in June, while more than 540,000 voters cast ballots in the Democratic primary. (Fun fact! If Virginia had a top-two primary system a la California or Washington, only the two Democratic candidates would be on the ballot this fall: Though Tom Perriello lost to Ralph Northam, he still earned 239,285 votes to Gillespie’s mere 160,003.)
Post-primary, therefore, Gillespie had significant ground to make up with the Virginia electorate in terms of general enthusiasm. He continued running as a fairly moderate Republican, more in the vein of former Gov. Bob McDonnell rather than failed gubernatorial nominee and notorious conservative crusader Ken Cuccinelli.
But this approach doesn’t seem to be working out for Gillespie. He continues to trail Democrat Ralph Northam in polls as Virginia’s election season is about to kick into post-Labor Day high gear. Trump’s dismally low approval ratings in Virginia and Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s consistently solid numbers are additional anchors dragging on Gillespie’s campaign.
If desperate times call for desperate measures, there’s only one way to describe Gillespie after his most recent hiring and policy moves: legitimately desperate.
For months, Gillespie resisted calls from “top Republicans from the White House on down” to hire Trump strategists and take more extreme policy positions designed to court more Trump voters. But his principles seem to have given way to fear, as Gillespie has officially caved.
First, after weeks of resisting calls to take a more extreme position and after calling for “discussion” about keeping Civil War monuments but placing them in “proper historical context,” Gillespie is now reaching out to his supporters with an explicit pro-Confederate monument plea that no longer calls for conversation but rather opposition to any efforts to remove them.
Feed Ed’s fear! Donate $3 to Ralph Northam’s campaign today.
Next, Gillespie dropped a fearmongering ad that’s full of racist dog whistles, targeting Northam as weak on immigration policy and for allegedly supporting “sanctuary cities.” The ad claims that Gillespie will keeps us “safer” by “get[ting] tough on illegal immigration” and uses racially charged language and tropes often used to smear members of the Latino community. But here’s a fun fact: The vote Gillespie hits Northam for in the ad was almost certainly engineered by GOP lawmakers to force Northam to break a tie in the state Senate—solely to give the Republican an anti-immigration talking point, because, well, Virginia doesn’t technically have any “sanctuary cities” to ban in the first place.
But arguably Gillespie’s most shocking shift is that he caved to DC pressure and hired former Trump field staffer Jack Morgan to help with “grassroots outreach and coalition coordination.”
Morgan’s most recent job? Working on the primary campaign of none other than Corey Stewart, where he regularly lambasted Gillespie as a Washington lobbyist who’s part of the “swamp” in need of draining and said electing Gillespie would be a “disaster.” Morgan claims the push to remove Confederate monuments is part of a communist plot to undermine America by “coming after our country and after our foundation.” He believes “we are already in a civil war” that “just hasn’t been called that yet.” And now Gillespie has tapped this right-wing nut to turn his faltering campaign around.
Gillespie has long been a shrewd political operative, and it’s as disappointing as it is shocking that he’d exploit the Charlottesville tragedy and resort to such extremism in a cynical attempt to divide Virginians and win votes.
But fear has a way of driving people to say and do desperate things, and based on these recent moves, Gillespie isn’t just scared. He’s terrified.