One of the most-watched races since Donald Trump’s election has been Virginia’s gubernatorial showdown between Republican Ed Gillespie and Democrat Ralph Northam. Northam, the state’s current liutenant governor, was expected to win for months. But he is now facing the possibility of a loss, a potentially major blow for Democrats in the state and everyone across the country desperate for a rebuke to Trumpism.
Already, recriminations are flying fast and thick. If Gillespie wins, pundits will likely point to some unholy combination of the establishment wing of the party, DNC chair Tom Perez, Northam himself, a controversial ad from the Latino Victory Fund, Democracy for America (which recently announced it was not doing “any work to directly aid” Northam after he said he would outlaw sanctuary cities), and countless others to explain the loss.
But by falling into many of the same traps as last year’s election, the media also deserves some of the blame for how tight this election has become. Over the course of the race in Virginia, many pundits and reporters have zeroed-in on that word that immediately lost its usefulness exactly one year ago: decorum. As Kevin Robillard wrote in Politico, “This year’s Virginia governor’s race, long a gentlemanly affair, is getting ugly.” An editorial in The Virginian-Pilot titled, “Shame on the Virginia governor candidates,” criticized both Northam and Gillespie for “wallowing in the mud.” The Washington Post’s editorial board wrote that “just because Mr. Gillespie has resorted to gutter tactics doesn’t give others leave to do the same.”
These calls for civility are stuck in the “when they go low, we go high” mantra that so dismally failed Democrats in 2016. Hewing toward this respectability framework—we’ll call it “both-sides-ism”—doesn’t allow for outlets to adequately cover and address the role racism had in Gillespie’s campaign.
Plenty of people have pointed out that Gillespie has waged an undeniably bigoted, Trump-like campaign. He has run ads tying to Northam to MS-13, a violent gang from El Salvador and criticizing Northam’s support of restoring felon voting rights. He has attacked Northam over the removal of Confederate monuments with ads stating that “Ralph Northam will take our statues down.” In the home stretch, Gillespie sent out fliers that say, “You’d never take a knee... So take a stand on election day,” capitalizing on Trump’s racist attacks on NFL players.
Then there’s Northam, whom the press has taken great pains to criticize as “uncivil” in his attacks against the same man they describe as racist. A controversial TV spot put together by the Latino Victory Fund, an independent group, serves as a useful example of outlets absurdly contorting themselves to seem equally critical of Northam as they are of Gillespie.
The LVF ad featured a pick-up truck with a Confederate flag sticker pursuing a group of children of color. In response, Gillespie released an ad calling the spot “race-baiting” that cut together different figures in the media condemning the LVF ad. There were the usual critics, like Fox News’ Tucker Carlson stating that the ad was the “single most disgusting unfair thing I’ve ever seen.” But there was also quotes from outlets like The Washington Post and The Hill. The Post’s editorial called the LVF spot a “vile” ad that “had no place in Va.’s governor’s race,” condemning it for glossing “over the fact that Mr. Gillespie condemned the white-supremacist violence in Charlottesville far more directly than did President Trump.”
The Hill published an op-ed with a similar tone, stating:
The recent video ad by the liberal Latino Victory Fund against Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie takes the cake as one of the most egregious political ads in my lifetime. Not only is this minute-long spot blatantly false in the way it portrays conservative voters like myself, but it is vile, offensive and establishes a new low for political ad integrity — one that many could never have imagined.
While Robillard’s Politico article notes that Gillespie is “especially” brutal, the framing is still that both sides are guilty of mudslinging, effectively overstating Northam’s shortcomings and minimizing Gillespie’s racism. The piece starts with this equivalency: “One candidate has linked his opponent to torch-wielding white nationalists. The other implies his opponent supports gun rights for pedophiles.” The Richmond Times-Dispatch, one of state’s biggest papers, wrote an editorial that also criticized the lack of civility on both sides. In regards to Northam, the piece focused on a mailer that Democrats sent out linking Gillespie, Trump, and white supremacists in Charlottesville, stating that “it’s practically libel.”
The Latino Victory Fund ad may have been extremely imprudent; it sensationally criticizes Gillespie voters in a state in which a majority of registered voters polled want to keep Civil War monuments rather than Gillespie himself. But there is no genuine equivalency here between the perceived ugliness of the pro-Northam ad or Northam’s attempts to tie his opponent to white supremacists and Gillespie’s actual racism.
Here is an equivalency you can make: While Gillespie might formally be distancing himself from Trump, he benefits entirely from operating from his racist playbook.
Where Trump calls black NFL players protesting police brutality “sons of bitches,” Gillespie criticizes them for taking a knee. As ICE under Trump brutally terrorizes immigrants across the country, Gillespie runs ads warning of tattooed El Salvadorian gangs coming to murder Virginians.
While many point out that Gillespie condemned the white supremacists in Charlottesville, he’s still running ads inciting fears that Northam is taking down “our” statues when, just three months ago, violent white supremacists in Virginia murdered Heather Heyer over what they nominally called a Confederate statue protest. Gillespie might have given himself a thin cover of plausible deniability when it comes to Charlottesville, but given the current political context, there is no clearer virtue signaling than those Confederate statue ads.
None of this means Northam is above reproach. His recent stance against sanctuary cities, which his state doesn’t even have, is moronic, a transparent move to the ideological middle and a capitulation to anti-immigrant sentiment sweeping the country. But in comparison to what Gillespie is doing, the pro-Northam attack ads are simply not on the same plane. It’s the media’s role to make these distinctions clear. Northam’s strategy of calling out Gillespie’s Trumpist racism is not a “dirty” tactic. Nor is it underhanded or untrue, especially when looking at the entire context of our current political environment. Whether Gillespie wins or not, given how quickly he was able to eliminate most of Northam’s wide lead in the polls, there will likely be a wave of Republican candidates across the country mirroring his racist tactics. We can’t fall for it again.