GOP campaign leader says Republicans will face ‘challenge’ in 2018
Campaign managers speak.
Campaign managers for Democratic Gov.-elect Ralph Northam and his defeated Republican rival Ed Gillespie both said Monday that they didn’t expect the wave of opposition to President Donald Trump to be as intense as it was in Virginia’s governor’s race.
“Good luck,” Gillespie campaign manager Chris Leavitt said at a post-election panel Monday night when asked what Virginia’s results might mean for Republicans running in the 2018 midterms. “Because it’s going to be a challenge. In Washington, there has to be some things that get done for voters.”
Northam campaign manager Brad Komar said Northam’s 9-point win over Gillespie was partly the result of a coordinated mobilization of minority communities, younger voters and college-educated suburban white voters. But the Trump effect on turnout surprised even the Northam strategists who were relying on conservative polling models that showed Northam with leads ranging from one to four points.
“I didn’t see the wave in June. I saw it three days beforehand,” Komar said at the event hosted by the nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government.
Northam, the sitting lieutenant governor, defeated Gillespie, a GOP strategist and political consultant, by a surprisingly wide margin of nearly 54 percent to 45 percent in last week’s gubernatorial election to succeed outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe next year. Libertarian Cliff Hyra finished a distant third, receiving just over 1 percent of the vote.
Democrats swept all three statewide races, winning elections for lieutenant governor and attorney general in addition to Northam’s victory. Though final vote counts are still being tabulated, Democrats also appear to have flipped 15 seats in the 100-member House of Delegates, a shocking result that wiped out what had been a 66-34 Republican majority. Republican leaders have claimed they’ll hold onto a 51-49 majority, but recounts and possible litigation in several close races could change the outcome.
The onstage meeting between Komar and Leavitt, both of whom had worked for their respective bosses in earlier statewide races, was largely civil. The most impassioned point of disagreement came when the conversation turned to the attack ads that dominated the latter part of the campaign.
Komar said he disagreed with the “both sides” premise of a question from moderator Mark J. Rozell, dean of the Schar School at GMU, saying the Northam campaign didn’t go as “vitriolic” as its rivals.
“I don’t believe that the Enron Ed ad was the equivalent of putting General Lee on TV,” Komar said, referring to Northam’s ads spotlighting Gillespie’s career history as a lobbyist.
Leavitt defended his campaign’s decision to run ads focused on illegal immigration, specifically the Latino gang MS-13, and Confederate statues, saying the ads were driven by “polling and data” showing those messages would help Gillespie sway independents.
“These were policy differences,” Leavitt said. “Enron Ed is a personal attack on someone.”
Pressed on why Northam didn’t do more to distance himself from a controversial ad from the Latino Victory Fund showing a pickup truck with a Confederate flag and a Gillespie bumper sticker chasing down minority children, Komar said the Latino community wanted to “counterattack” after Gillespie’s MS-13 ads.
“I think that there were more effective ways that could be edgy without doing that,” Komar said. “But we did not authorize it.”
Explaining the Gillespie campaign’s decision to not invite Trump to Virginia to stump for Gillespie, Leavitt said his team didn’t want to “nationalize” the race by shifting focus away from state policy issues and onto the president.
“Pundits can comment on that and how that worked out one way or the other,” Leavitt said. “At the time, it seemed like the right path.”
The “Trumpism without Trump” strategy didn’t work for Gillespie, Komar said, because it made Gillespie sound like he had different answers on Trump depending on the day.
“Whether he showed up or not, I don’t know if that really had as much of an impact as just the fact that it was always a question,” Komar said. “Any day you’re on offense in the news cycle is a good day.”