Virginia's GOP Governor Hopeful Takes Aim At Voting Rights Again

Sam Levine

Ed Gillespie, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Virginia, launched another highly misleading ad on Friday targeting the practice of restoring voting rights to former felons who have completed their sentences.

The advertisement marked the second time this week Gillespie has attacked the policy, which has dramatically expanded under Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D). In Virginia, people convicted of felonies lose the right to vote, but can regain their voting rights once they serve their time, if the governor chooses. McAuliffe has individually restored the rights of 168,000 people who have completed their sentences.

The new Gillespie ad accuses McAuliffe and Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D), Gillespie’s opponent in the race, of making Virginians less safe by restoring former felons’ right to vote. The ad focuses on John Bowen, who had his voting rights restored in December, a week after he had been charged with possessing child pornography (the state does not remove voting rights when someone is only facing a criminal charge). Once Bowen pleaded guilty in January, he lost his right to vote again, but the ad doesn’t mention that.

“John Bowen had his rights restored because of Ralph Northam’s policy,” the ad says. “Ralph Northam called restoring the rights of unrepentant sex offenders one of his greatest feats. Ralph Northam’s policies are risky.”

The segment appears to be referring to a Northam comment from May in which he spoke about restoring rights more generally.

“I’ve worked very closely with Governor McAuliffe. I think it’s one of our greatest feats ... during the last four years,” Northam said in May.

“We’ve restored the rights of over 156,000 Virginians, and I’ve had so many people come up to me and just say, ‘Thank you. Thank you for letting me get back into society. Thank you for letting me have my self esteem back.’ That is so important,” he added. 

Lt. Gov Ralph Northam, the Democrat running for governor in Virginia, is facing attacks from his opponent for a policy that restores voting rights to former felons. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Before McAuliffe began restoring rights, the nonprofit Sentencing Project estimated that 1 in 5 African-Americans in Virginia was disenfranchised because of a felony conviction. Virginia is one of the most restrictive states in the country when it comes to restoring voting rights, and it is ultimately up to the discretion of the governor whether to do so.

In a statement on Friday, McAuliffe suggested Gillespie’s opposition to restoring voting rights would lead to a racist outcome.

“Ed’s ads suggest that rather than continue the progress that we have achieved, he would reinstate a racist, fringe policy that would send the Commonwealth squarely back to the Jim Crow era,” McAuliffe said. “I believe Ed would be less inclined to call 168,000 Virginians ‘unrepentant sex offenders’ if he understood the discriminatory history of felon disenfranchisement in Virginia and across the nation, or took the time to meet the Virginians he is using as political footballs.”

David Turner, a Northam campaign spokesman, called the ad “the last gasp of a pathetic, know-nothing campaign.”

The Washington Post editorial board dubbed it “poisonous.”

“The ad targeting his Democratic opponent in next month’s election, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, is in keeping with the recent thrust of Mr. Gillespie’s campaign, which, taking a page from the Trump playbook, has been more about scaring and dividing Virginians than inspiring and uniting them,” the Post wrote in a scathing editorial on Thursday.

Rather than continue the progress that we have achieved, [Gillespie] would reinstate a racist, fringe policy that would send the Commonwealth squarely back to the Jim Crow era. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D)

Notwithstanding Gillespie’s attempts to capitalize on the public’s fear of ex-felons, his website states that he actually favors the restoration of voting rights, but wants a more “permanent solution.” Republicans supported a failed constitutional amendment that would have required former felons to repay all their fines and dues before their rights could be restored. Critics said the measure would have perpetuated the disenfranchisement of poor Virginians.

For years, Gillespie, a longtime lobbyist and former chairman of the Republican National Committee, cut a moderate profile on hot-button social issues like crime and immigration.

But that was before a bruising gubernatorial primary with Trumpian populist Corey Stewart, whose appeals to pride in Confederate history and branding of Gillespie as “Establishment Ed” nearly deprived him of the nomination. In the end, Gillespie defeated Stewart by little more than 1 percentage point.

Over the past two months, Gillespie has done his utmost to shore up the base of voters loyal to Trump and Stewart, hiring a key Stewart adviser to run his field operations in southwestern Virginia and fundraising off of his opposition to the removal of Confederate monuments.

In addition to the attack ad portraying Northam as soft on former criminals, Gillespie released a series of ads accusing Northam of enabling MS-13 gang members to thrive by backing so-called “sanctuary cities.”

In fact, Northam cast a vote blocking a GOP bill that obligated localities to cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But Gillespie has admitted that the state does not currently have any cities that limit their cooperation with ICE or could otherwise be construed as sanctuary cities, and there is no evidence federal and state authorities would have trouble deporting violent criminals arrested in those municipalities regardless.

The barrage of negative ads ― which many observers have compared to the infamous Willy Horton ad that George H.W. Bush used to win the presidency in 1988 ― appears to have been something of a boon for Gillespie. He’s now neck-and-neck with Northam in many polls, spooking Democrats eager to hold on to the state’s governorship.

“I characterize this stage of the race like trench warfare,” said Quentin Kidd, political science professor at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia. “Northam holds the ground right now that gives him a small lead over Gillespie ... and [Gillespie] is trying to take ground away from him inch by inch.”

Kidd ventured that Gillespie is trying to excite Stewart voters, particularly in rural southwestern Virginia, while also making the race so radioactive in the minds of moderates and independents in exurban Northern Virginia that they stay home rather than turn out for Northam.

“I may not approve of the tactic and I may not like it,” Kidd said. “I understand tactically why they’re doing it.”

Gillespie’s racialized attacks have apparently not ruffled many of the wealthy conservatives across the country who have donated to his campaign.

But that might be because the donors themselves share his views.

Robert McNair, owner of the NFL’s Houston Texans, contributed $102,500 to Gillespie’s campaign. (Virginia has no limits on individual contributions to state-level races.)

During an NFL owners’ meeting about players who are protesting racism and police brutality during the national anthem, McNair said, “We can’t have the inmates running the prison,” according to an ESPN report.

The Gillespie campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment on McNair’s remarks.

  • This article originally appeared on HuffPost.