Ed Gillespie is in a bit of a bind.
The Republican—a former counselor to President George W. Bush and previous Republican National Committee chairman—is running for governor of Virginia. He also recently hired an operative from President Donald Trump’s campaign who has asserted that communists are behind efforts to take down Confederate monuments in the state, and that the country is on the brink of a civil war.
The hiring of Jack Morgan, who served as Trump’s southwest Virginia field director—along with a more hardline shift in Gillespie’s stance on Confederate statue removal—drove political observers and Virginia Democrats to conclude that the seemingly establishment Republican is stuck between appealing to the more moderate voters of the state and a Trump base animated by the battle over the monuments.
In the Democrats’ eyes, getting too close to Trump is a death wish in the Old Dominion.
“No one who knows Ed Gillespie thinks for a moment he believes this nonsense,” Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, told The Daily Beast, referring specifically to Morgan’s remarks about communists. “But this is about winning, and apparently he’s willing to do whatever it takes to win a difficult race.”
The race is certainly difficult but not totally out of reach. A recent poll from Roanoke College showed that the Democratic candidate Ralph Northam held a seven-point lead over Gillespie. Overall, according to the Real Clear Politics average, Gillespie is trailing by nearly six points.
The decision to more staunchly defend Confederate monuments, a shaky proposition following a recent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, echoes the insurgent campaign of Corey Stewart, a former state chairman for the Trump campaign who almost upset Gillespie in the Republican gubernatorial primary with a campaign largely hinged on preserving statues.
In the immediate days after the tragedy in Charlottesville, which claimed the life of 32-year-old Heather Heyer, Gillespie released a long statement in which he said that statues should remain but be placed in a historical context and that decisions about them should be made at a local level.
But his language on the issue was more charged this week in an email to supporters.
“Spending scarce tax dollars on very costly statue removals instead of improving schools and roads or increasing pay for teachers and police is not the right priority for Virginians,” it read in part.
“Democrat Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam has promised to do everything he can if he is elected governor to remove Virginia’s Confederate monuments and statues. Add your name if you agree with Ed Gillespie that these statues should stay right where they are and we should teach history—NOT erase it.”
Sabato attributed Gillespie’s strategy of going on the offensive, as well as his hiring of Morgan (who used to blast Gillespie during the GOP primary), to the candidate being stuck between a rock and a hard place.
“Gillespie is cornered by the inherent contradictions of the current GOP coalition,” Sabato explained. “The Trump base wants red meat, preferably Trump steaks cooked rare. They buy all this malarkey. Corey Stewart’s followers, who nearly upset Gillespie in the primary, still have to be won over.
“At the same time, Gillespie has to appear moderate and polished enough to cut into the growing Democratic margins in Northern Virginia and other urban-suburban parts of the state. Very, very tough to do.”
Morgan and a spokesperson for Gillespie did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Daily Beast.
While one hire doesn’t change the scope and direction of a campaign, Virginia Democrats are still seizing on the moment to paint Gillespie as closely tied to Trump—seen as a particularly disliked figure in the state, whose approval rating was underwater even before his remarks on Charlottesville.
"Ed Gillespie, rather than condemning Donald Trump for divisive remarks after Charlottesville, is embracing his policies and rhetoric,” said Ofirah Yheskel, press secretary for Northam, the Democratic challenger. “With the hiring of a Trump operative who believes in an imminent civil war, and Virginia Republicans’ dog whistles growing louder by the day, it's clear that he wants to be nothing more than Trump's top lobbyist in Virginia. It is a shame to see the party of Lincoln stoop so low."
Carolyn Fiddler, political editor and senior communications advisor for Daily Kos, a liberal outfit, said that Gillespie’s recent moves were meant to compensate for a lack of excitement among voters.
"Democrats, unlike Republicans, aren't relying on a strategy that sows artificial divisiveness in a pathetic attempt to compensate for an electorate that's clearly not excited about Gillespie,” she told The Daily Beast.
Gillespie condemned the white supremacists in Charlottesville in strong terms at an Americans for Prosperity event in Richmond on August 19 but was criticized for not mentioning the president’s response to the violence, which blamed “many sides.”
From a polling perspective, taking a more forceful pro-monument stance might not necessarily help Gillespie in a state won by Hillary Clinton in 2016 and one in which the president is viewed unfavorably by a majority of the electorate.
“Gillespie's pro-monument kick is a wash at best,” Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling told The Daily Beast. “The only voters who are really mad about Confederate monuments coming down were already voting for him anyway. It might increase the enthusiasm [of] people who voted against him in the primary … but it's not going to help him win the middle-of-the-road voters who have handed every major election in Virginia to the Democrats since 2004.”
Still, Gillespie’s approach—which is far from the bomb-throwing nature of Stewart, who at one point referred to Gillespie as a “cuckservative” during the campaign—may be more palatable to some Republican voters in the general election.
“Everybody is against neo-Nazis, but polling shows people are far more ambivalent about actually removing monuments, particularly when the slippery slope argument is invoked,” Liam Donovan, a Virginia-based former GOP operative, told The Daily Beast.
The debate about monuments in the state has already turned ugly with the Republican Party of Virginia asserting on Twitter last week that Northam had “turned his back on his own family’s heritage” by calling for statue removal. (Northam’s great-great-grandfather owned slaves in the mid-19th century, which he learned about earlier this year). The state party later apologized.
But in this heated political environment, the worst is likely yet to come.
“The nasty stuff pops in October, usually,” Sabato said.