WILLIAMSBURG, Virginia—“We got some panicked Democrats on the other side right now,” Ed Gillespie said triumphantly in the parking garage of a Country Inn & Suites here on Sunday afternoon.
The Republican candidate for governor in the state has indeed closed the gap in polling against his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam. And national Democrats have been biting their nails for weeks about the possibility of an important win, and potentially a referendum on the strength of the party, slipping through their grasp.
Sunday brought Gillespie on a tour of southern cities in the state, beginning with Williamsburg and followed by the Trump-friendly cities of Virginia Beach and Wytheville, where the candidate hopes to get high turnout to counteract Northern Virginia cities where Democrats typically fare far better.
On the stump in Williamsburg, Gillespie focused primarily on his policies and shied away from the larger national political landscape and some of the culture warrior fare (Confederate monuments, NFL players who kneel), that has characterized the campaign’s ad strategy. But surrogates for the campaign continued to mention a highly controversial Latino Victory Fund ad that was pulled off Spanish-language stations after a mere two days.
“All of you have watched some of the vile imagery that has been part of the campaign on the other side,” Jill Vogel, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor said, referencing the ad. “It is the saddest, most vile thing I have ever seen.”
The ad in question depicted a pickup truck with a Confederate flag and a Gillespie sticker on the bumper pursuing a group of minority children. It was quickly pulled after after a terrorist attack in New York City last week in which the assailant used a truck.
“We knew our ad would ruffle feathers,” Cristóbal J. Alex, the group’s president, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “We held a mirror up to the Republican Party, and they don’t like what they see. We have decided to pull our ad at this time.”
But the ad offered an opening for Republicans in the state and all the way up to the White House to claim Northam was the culprit behind Virginia’s race-baiting campaign, not Gillespie.
“The only people I see stoking political racism right now are the people in the groups that are running ads like the one you saw take place in Virginia earlier this week," White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a press briefing last week.
It only made sense then that Gillespie would seek to make major hay of it, even releasing a response ad in which he said Northam “disdains Virginians who disagree with him.”
Critics of Gillespie’s campaign have said his own ads, some of which suggest Northam has enabled MS-13 gang violence in the state, engage in race-baiting to drum up support—a strategy that paid dividends for both Trump and Corey Stewart, who nearly upset Gillespie in the Republican primary this past summer.
And while Gillespie, the rest of his ticket, and visiting booster Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) wanted to keep the focus on the commonwealth on Sunday, with no mentions of Trump’s name, Stewart was busy claiming victory for providing a model of success for Gillespie’s campaign.
“It feels like my campaign, doesn’t it?” Stewart told The Washington Post. “What is it that they say? Imitation is the best form of flattery.”
While he boasted of inspiring Gillespie’s advertising approach, the former candidate was rubbing shoulders with former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, the self-declared maestro of the insurgent populist Republican strategy.
During a speech at the Remembrance Project National Conference in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, Bannon predicted that Stewart and Trump voters would bring the race home for Gillespie.
“If Gillespie… a Bush guy… wins, and I do believe that Gillespie’s going to pull this thing out,” Bannon said, “it will be because of the underlying message of Corey Stewart and what he believes in, and the Trump voters in Virginia who are gonna turn out!”
A fundraising email sent out on behalf of Northam quickly seized on the remarks. “Bannon deciding to jump in the race is not good,” it read.
Some voters in attendance at the Williamsburg event did say a motivating factor in their support for Gillespie was how a Republican win in the state would help Trump.
“I’m supporting the Republican Party,” 62-year-old Tom Overby, a Williamsburg resident sporting a Make America Great Again shirt, told The Daily Beast. “The policies that Trump is putting out, Ed [Gillespie] and John [Adams] and Jill [Vogel] are following those policies, and that’s what I hope we can see in Virginia.”
Overby said he was specifically excited about Trump’s efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and his focus on “enforcing immigration” and job creation.
“Honestly he’s a Republican and we need to support the president, and that’s the only way we’re going to get our policies through,” Overby said of supporting Gillespie.
Andrew Goldstein, a 61-year-old resident of the area sporting a red Make America Great Again hat who told The Daily Beast that he helps run a wind tunnel at NASA, said he did not like the direction that Democrats have gone in the last 20 years. He described the country as polarized between extreme positions.
“Ed is not anywhere near as severe as other people have been, at least in terms of the Democrats,” he said.
Goldstein batted down the idea that the race was a national referendum but conceded that Gillespie could prove an important ally for the president.
“I’m for Trump and I’d rather give him more help than less help,” Goldstein said. “And if this is what it takes to do it, that’s fine in my book.”
And two days out from Election Day, Goldstein seemed to think the state’s Republicans, no matter whom they backed in the primary, would rally behind the man Stewart once called “Establishment Ed.”
“I think we’ll get most all the Republican votes. I’m hoping, anyway,” Goldstein said.
“I’ll be there,” he added with a chuckle.