ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Ed Gillespie has a tricky road ahead of him as he campaigns for Virginia governor this year.
The Republican nominee wants to talk about state issues, not President Trump, not Russia and certainly not what’s on Twitter.
But Democrats hope to make the race, one of the few significant elections this fall, a referendum on Trump. The latest sign is that former President Obama has already decided to campaign for the Democratic nominee, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam. Obama isn’t coming to campaign for Northam because he wants to discuss the state budget. He’s going to come and talk about the man in the Oval Office.
And Gillespie can’t easily distance himself from the Republican president. He barely won the Republican primary, almost losing to another Republican candidate who imitated Trump’s style and approach to issues. That candidate, Corey Stewart, received 155,466 votes, and Gillespie eked out a victory with a few thousand more.
Without a good number of those Stewart voters on his side, Gillespie won’t have much of a chance on Nov. 7. The first poll of the general election showed Gillespie trailing Northam by eight points.
And Democratic turnout was enormous in the primary. A total of 540,000 Democrats voted in the primary, compared to just 360,000 Republicans. That suggests Gillespie is facing a potential tsunami of anti-Trump sentiment.
In an interview with Yahoo News at his office here just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., Gillespie, a longtime Republican operative and former chairman of the Republican National Committee, gave a preview of how he’ll try to navigate these challenges. He said that he voted for Trump for president and hopes he can pass policies that help Virginians, but also took some effort to note that it’s “not my job” to “always be for the president or always be against the president.”
“It’s to always be for Virginia,” he said. “Clearly I supported [Trump], but I look at everything through a focus of Virginia.”
Gillespie made several comments that signaled a clear break with the resentment-driven politics embodied by Trump. He noted that he’ll run an inclusive campaign that appeals to all races and religions.
“I intend to be governor for all Virginians. I will take my campaign to all Virginians. I try to look at things through other people’s eyes and to listen and to be open to different perspectives,” he said.
Republican gubernatorial candidate, Ed Gillespie, front left, waits to place a flower on an impromptu memorial for Nabra Hassanen, who was killed in a road rage incident, prior to the start of a vigil in honor of Nabar on Wednesday, June 21, 2017, in Reston, Va. (Photo: Steve Helber/AP)
Gillespie attended a funeral Wednesday for Nabra Hassanen, a 17-year-old Muslim girl who was beaten and killed Sunday by an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador, as she was on her way to Ramadan prayers at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, one of the largest mosques in the area.
“I have a lot of friends in the ADAMS community,” Gillespie noted.
Gillespie’s starkest departure from the Trump brand of politics was his expression of agreement that “Black Lives Matter” and his acknowledgment that he did not respond positively to the slogan at first.
“I remember the first time I heard Black Lives Matter, and my reaction I’m sure was similar to that of many others, which was, ‘Well, of course they do. All lives matter,’” Gillespie said. “As I thought about it and talked to people, it occurred to me that I never felt the need to say white lives matter. The fact that a significant portion of our fellow citizens feel the need to tell us that tells me something.”
I asked Gillespie what it told him.
“It tells me that —” he said, then paused. “Well, I’ll just leave it at that. I am responsive and open to and listening to the needs of my fellow Virginians, wherever they are, and I think people see that.”
Gillespie’s hesitation indicates his awareness that most Republican voters probably don’t share his appreciation of movements like Black Lives Matter. A recent survey of 40,000 Americans found a dramatic drop in the number of self-identified Republicans who believe African-Americans face discrimination, from 46 to 32 percent in just the last year.
Beyond that, Gillespie wants to talk about the economy. He’s a classic conservative in the sense that his main focus is on creating the conditions for economic growth. He believes that’s the biggest thing the government can do to improve the lives of the greatest number of people.
The commonwealth has had sluggish economic growth for several years, often lagging behind the national rate, which has averaged around 2 percent. “Five of the past six years, our economic growth rate has been below 1 percent, and the only year it wasn’t, it was at 2 percent, which is still anemic,” Gillespie said.
The state’s economy was deeply affected by the budget sequester cuts in 2013 that took money away from the robust federal contracting industry in northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.
Gillespie said his “long-term goal is to make our economy less reliant on federal spending and federal programs.” That’s been a goal of the current governor as well, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, who is limited to one term by the state constitution.
But while McAuliffe traveled the globe to attract business to locate in Virginia, Gillespie thinks a 10 percent cut in the state income tax rate, which hasn’t changed in over four decades, is a key to “a more dynamic economy” because most small-business owners pay the individual rate rather than the corporate rate.
“We have had a focus for 25 years … on what I call ‘whale hunting’ in Virginia in terms of our economic development policy. We’re constantly trying to get some Fortune 100 company to move its headquarters lock, stock and barrel into Virginia, and we throw taxpayer dollars to lure them here to do that,” Gillespie said. “I think that is an antiquated approach and that we need to put a greater focus on startups and scale-ups.”
“It’s more natural, organic growth. It is a more long-term but sustainable approach to job creation here, and it will help us diversify our economy,” he said.
Gillespie also wants to require that municipalities look for alternatives to three categories of local taxes, which he thinks are stifling small business growth.
He said this election will put Virginia on one of two trajectories: to be like many Northeastern states, with high taxes and lower rates of growth, or follow the course of Southern states, that he said have more people moving into them because of lower taxes and more jobs.
“Virginia is either going to become the northernmost southeastern state or the southernmost northeastern state,” he said.
Northam’s approach to the economy includes a desire to make the code “simpler, more progressive and fairer,” and he has spoken of the need “to have a tax code that’s competitive with other states.”
“If we don’t, these businesses and manufacturers are going to choose to go elsewhere,” Northam said. That could be interpreted to mean Northam wants to lower taxes for corporations, but he has so far not spelled out the details.
Northam also wants to raise the minimum wage, offer a tax credit to allow employers to offer more paid family leave and provide tax credits to offset grocery tax for lower-income Virginians.
The two candidates have already started to trade blows, with Northam charging that Gillespie is “Trump’s lobbyist.” It’s a double-pronged attack meant to tie him to Trump, forcing him to defend the president to hold on to the Republican base, but hurting him among moderates and independents.
And Democrats will look to ding Gillespie over some of his lobbying clients.
“There are plenty of clients of his that the public will find unappealing. He made money off helping big corporations game the system,” said Northam spokesman David Turner.
Gillespie began his political career as a congressional aide and quickly rose through the ranks of Republican operatives during the 2000 presidential campaign, and then formed a powerful lobbying company with Democrat Jack Quinn.
He was named chairman of the Republican National Committee and helped oversee the effort to reelect George W. Bush in 2004, then served as a senior White House adviser to Bush. He has since worked in both national politics and in Virginia. He was a senior adviser to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, and nearly won the 2014 U.S. Senate election against incumbent Mark Warner, a Democrat.
Part of Gillespie’s counterattack against Northam so far has been to label the Democrat as having drifted too far left, more focused on social issues and on attacking the president than on basic bread and butter economic issues.
“I’m going to keep talking about the issues that matter to Virginia … jobs and roads and schools and the safety of our communities and neighborhoods,” Gillespie said.
He concluded with a shot at the media, one topic that he does appear to agree with Trump.
“I have to talk to the voters about what the voters are telling me they care about and just let the media talk about what they want to talk about, because the good news is, it doesn’t matter that much anymore,” he said. “The voters will get their information, and they’ll get it through other means.”
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