When I spent time on the campaign trail with Ed Gillespie shortly after he clinched the Republican nomination for Virginia governor, the last thing he wanted to do was talk about illegal immigration. As he was campaigning at a Hispanic grocery store in the diverse Prince William County suburbs, I asked him about his reaction to reports that the killer of a Muslim high school student—a recent crime that had generated local headlines—may have had MS-13 ties. (The police later concluded that he wasn’t affiliated with the gang.) Gillespie mentioned that he attended the funeral of the young woman, a point intended to underscore his inclusive message in hopes of expanding the GOP coalition. “We’ve got a public-safety working group that’s focused on this,” Gillespie told me in June. “I need to get some more information and some more policy prescriptions before rolling anything out on this.”
Fast-forward four months: Gillespie’s television ads across the Old Dominion relentlessly focus on gang violence and cracking down on “sanctuary cities” for illegal immigrants (even though Virginia doesn’t have sanctuary cities). One recent television spot ties his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, to gang violence from MS-13. “Northam cast the deciding vote in favor of sanctuary cities that let illegal immigrants who commit crimes back on the street, increasing the threat of MS-13,” the ad blares. Another ad interposes tattooed Hispanic men next to Northam, blaming him for a spike in the group’s criminal activity. The spots aren’t just airing in conservative confines of Virginia; they’ve been seen regularly by viewers in the more-liberal Washington area.
Even President Trump got into the act Thursday night, tweeting that Northam was “fighting for” MS-13 gang members, while offering his endorsement to Gillespie. Gillespie has been trying to avoid talking about Trump on the campaign trail, recognizing the potential backlash in a state that Hillary Clinton carried.
This strategic shift by one of the most “establishment” figures in Republican politics isn’t a coincidence. Congressional GOP operatives have been poring over polling data and focus-group feedback from suburban, swing voters showing that portraying Democrats as soft on crime and immigration is a potent strategy. If Gillespie succeeds—or even makes the governor’s race close in a tough environment—expect Republican candidates across the country to mimic the former Republican National Committee chairman’s strategy. Indeed, many vulnerable congressional Republicans are already planning to incorporate similar attacks against Democrats for next year’s midterms, particularly in swing, suburban districts.
Democrats shouldn’t be caught napping on such a hot-button issue, either. In his presidential campaign, Trump revealed a reality that few Republican operatives wanted to admit—that cultural issues like immigration, crime, and race relations were a much more galvanizing force than traditional GOP paeans about tax cuts and entitlement reform. Gillespie began his general-election campaign relentlessly focused on talking about giving Virginians a tax break. He enters the home stretch as a culture warrior.
Democrats believe the tactic is borne out of desperation, pointing to polls showing Northam holding a consistent lead throughout the campaign. (Both sides argue that this week’s Washington Post poll showing a 13-point lead doesn’t reflect the competitive nature of the race.) “They’re still figuring out a way to punch through, trying to figure out how to consolidate their base,” said a Northam strategist.
But they’re also concerned that liberal grassroots interest in the governor’s race isn’t as high as hoped. Since the primary, Northam has offered a more conciliatory tone toward the president, saying he’d “work with” Trump “if he’s helping Virginia” in one ad. Gubernatorial turnout in an off year is typically low, and despite Trump serving as a one-man turnout machine for Democrats, there’s little evidence that Northam has won the excitement of progressive activists.
Conventional wisdom holds that issues motivating the Trump base—like sanctuary cities—don’t play well in swing states and are simply base-rallying tools. But Republicans believe there’s a silent majority of voters who side with them, especially in suburban territory where MS-13 crimes are taking place.
The race will be a bellwether for how broad an audience there is for the conservative culture wars. Given Trump’s unpopularity in Virginia, Northam should be winning comfortably in this election. If Gillespie gets traction by mimicking the president’s core campaign issues, it’s as clear a sign as ever that the GOP is undergoing a Trumpian takeover.