Progressives Can’t Afford to Ignore Virginia

In just a few days, Virginians will go to the polls and help shape the future of U.S. politics.

This may sound to some like an overly dramatic take on one state’s elections. Unfortunately, it’s not. Given the implications of what happens on Tuesday—when Virginia voters chooses its three statewide elected officials and all of the delegates in its House—progressives across the country can’t afford to ignore Virginia.

Some political writers have focused on the fact that the results of the Virginia election will determine how legislative districts are redrawn in the state after the next census, dictating whether voters will be able to choose their politicians or politicians will be able to choose their voters. Others have focused on the power of a Democratic governor’s ability to veto radical right-wing bills passed by a Republican-controlled, gerrymandered legislature. These are both critically important reasons to plug into the Virginia election.

But perhaps the most significant reason is also the simplest and most profound: countering hate.

Republicans in Virginia have chosen to take a page directly from the fearmongering, immigrant-bashing playbook of Donald Trump. If the GOP finds that the Trump strategy is a successful approach in Virginia, we will likely see it repeated with fervor throughout the country in the 2018 elections and beyond. And if this can work in Virginia, a state that is increasingly progressive and where every statewide elected official is a Democrat, imagine what this can do everywhere else.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie’s ad campaign has been so transparently racist that it borders on caricature. He released multiple attack ads absurdly tying his Democratic opponent Ralph Northam to MS-13 gang violence, which have drawn comparisons to the infamous “Willie Horton” ad of the 1988 presidential election. One of Gillespie’s commercials from September misleadingly featured photos of men who aren’t even part of the MS-13 gang, casting aside accuracy in favor of harmful anti-immigrant stereotypes. Another shows a figure in a hoodie holding a baseball bat alongside the gang slogan “kill, rape, control,” pushing the racialized stereotype that someone in a hoodie should be feared. Sound familiar?

In another Gillespie ad, the narrator ominously asks “Who will keep your family safe?” while text flashes across the screen accusing Northam of supporting policies that “let illegal immigrant criminals back on the streets.” A Gillespie-approved mailer is even more explicit, showing images of Confederate statues while charging Northam with wanting to “tear down history while making life easier for illegal immigrants.” Yet another Gillespie attack ad accuses Northam of making it easier for sex offenders to get access to guns, twisting Northam’s support for an important civil rights restoration law beyond recognition.

Gillespie’s message is clear: immigrants, and for that matter, people of color, are a violent threat—so fear them all. Be very, very afraid. It’s a disgusting approach of stoking fear of “the other” as a way to gain power.

But whether this approach will ultimately win Gillespie the governorship remains an open question. It’s a true test of whether Trumpism works even without Trump on the ticket. If it does, we will see the flood gates open of 2018 candidates making anti-immigrant messaging a cornerstone of their campaign strategy, in the mold of Donald Trump—further poisoning politics and putting immigrants and people of color in increased danger. As the Washington Post’s James Hohmann reported on Wednesday in regard to the Virginia governor’s race: “Top GOP operatives in the battle for control of the House tell me that they’re watching closely…They think Gillespie is showing a possible path to victory for several vulnerable Republicans in exurban districts.”

This is a make-or-break moment for our politics. We have to show that a path to victory is found in promoting just policies that expand opportunity for all, not in enflaming fears. That a winning campaign is one grounded in smart new ideas, not in anti-immigrant smears.

We have to show that hate is not an effective campaign strategy.

Michael Keegan is the president of People For the American Way.

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