News & Politics

Here’s Why the Virginia GOP Is Trying to Make the Governor’s Race About Confederate Statues

A neo-Confederate nearly won the party's nomination in June, and Ed Gillespie will need those votes.

A statue to Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia. Photograph by Flickr user Taber Andrew Bain.

The Virginia Republican Party earned a round of public scorn Wednesday when it fired off a pair of tweets at Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam, accusing the Democratic nominee for governor of having “turned his back on his own family’s heritage” in calling for the removal of Confederate statues.

The tweets have since been deleted, with the state GOP’s account apologizing, but not before the initial statements were blasted by Democrats and the Daily Beast as accusing Northam being a “race traitor.” The response wasn’t limited to left-leaning voices, either. “Have you lost your minds—who is in control of your twitter act?” wrote David Ramadan, a former Republican member of the state House of Delegates from Loudoun County.

“Our previous tweets were interpreted in a way we never intended,” the Virginia GOP wrote. “We apologize and reiterate our denunciation of racism in all forms.”

John Findlay, the party’s executive director, told the Washington Post the offending tweets aimed to cast Northam as betraying his ancestors. “We said that Ralph Northam is turning his back on his heritage and family. It is because his great-grandfather fought for the side of the Confederacy and was wounded during the Civil War,” Findlay said.

David D’onofrio, the state GOP’s communications director, declined to comment beyond Findlay’s statement and the apology tweet.

For what it’s worth, Findlay and his underlings may want to check their history. While Northam—who responded quickly—learned earlier this year that one of his ancestors owned slaves—his family’s home of Accomack County was hardly a Confederate stronghold. It spent most of the Civil War under Union control after troops loyal to the United States reconquered the Eastern Shore in November 1861. Accomack County records from 1863 show that Northam’s great-great-grandfather freed a slave who went on to enlist in the US 9th Regiment of Colored Troops.

As for Wednesday’s tweets: Even deleted, the context from which they sprung is pretty obvious. Confederate monuments, most built in the decades after the Civil War, have become perhaps the most visible issue in Virginia’s gubernatorial race, especially after the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville on August 12—organized to defend a statue of Robert E. Lee—that culminated in a car attack that killed anti-racist protester Heather Heyer. Northam, who had previously said the fate of Confederate monuments should be decided at the municipal level, was quick to call for their removal statewide after events unfolded in Charlottesville.

But in that same span, the Republican Party—from President Trump on down—has hardened its support for leaving Confederate statues in public squares. The Virginia state party has been especially aggressive in touting the statues as symbols of “heritage.” And not just because Richmond was the Confederate capital. It might have something to do with the fact that this a neo-Confederate blowhard nearly snatched this year’s gubernatorial nomination.

GOP nominee Ed Gillespie has been slightly less rigid on Confederate statues, saying in the wake of Charlottesville that they should remain in place but receive “proper historical context.” But he might not be so pro-Confederate-monument at all if he hadn’t just squeaked by Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart in the Republican primary in June. The Minnesota-born Stewart made Confederate pride the focus of his campaign after the Charlottesville City Council first announced its intention to relocate the Lee statue. Through his rallying behind the Lee statue, Stewart became an acquaintance of Jason Kessler, the white-nationalist writer who went on to organize the August 12 demonstration that drew the participation of armed militias, neo-Nazis, and members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Stewart said after Charlottesville that groups like the KKK were “trying to hijack” the statue issue and had nothing to do with his position, but also blasted Republicans who condemned Trump’s meandering response to the white-supremacist demonstration were “weak” and “play[ing] right into the hands of the left wing.”

The Virginia GOP’s tweets at Northam on Wednesday were not the first time since August 12 that the state party’s gone after a high-profile Democrat with such invective. On Monday, it called former Representative Tom Perriello, who challenged Northam for the Democratic nomination, a “Christian-wing bigot” in response to a Perriello tweet directed at white evangelical leaders who haven’t distanced themselves from Trump’s Charlottesville response.

As the Democratic nominee for governor, Northam will be the target of many of the Virginia GOP’s tweets and other communications. But even though it’s Gillespie’s name on the statewide ballot this fall, it’s easy to see why his party might tap into Stewart’s playbook anyway. If Gillespie, a longtime national GOP operator who lives in Fairfax County, has any shot at winning, he needs to get the primary voters who were swayed by Stewart’s appeals to Confederate memory, which, post-Charlottesville, is the national Republican Party’s line, too.

They’re trying to reference the general Republican defense which is that the Confederate statues are history and heritage,” says Geoffrey Skelley of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “Trump has made a case that many Republicans agree with, that removing them is an attempt to delete history, which is absurd, because the monuments themselves are not history.”

To be sure, a handful of tweets aren’t a large part of a broader communications strategy, but it shouldn’t be a surprise if Republicans continue making Confederate monuments part their case for Gillespie in a state that’s voted Democratic in every statewide election since 2012. Stewart’s biggest vote totals in the primary came from the more culturally conservative rural parts of Virginia, but he kept it closer than expected in the DC suburbs. Skelley chalks that up in part to a possibility that independents whom Gillespie counted on to pad his lead in Northern Virginia opted to vote in the Northam-Perriello race instead. (About 175,000 more people voted in the Democratic primary than the Republican one.)

But there are surer signs that statewide Republicans are losing whatever toehold they have left in Northern Virginia, and not just because of the Democrats’ winning streak. A 39 percent plurality of Trump’s votes in the commonwealth last year came from outside the DC suburbs, Richmond, and Hampton Roads, Skelley says—the same non-urban areas where Stewart was strongest this year.

Gillespie himself is taking a less visceral tone. His campaign is running its first advertisement in the Washington television market this week. It’s soft and pleasant, with Gillespie standing in a well-appointed boardroom talking about his parents’ working-class roots and how he was the first in his family to go to college and went on to be an adviser to President George W. Bush—in other words, an ad that tries to reach people who don’t think about raising the Confederate flag. But Gillespie will get plenty of air support from his party, and don’t be surprised if that sounds more like his primary opponent. Even though his gubernatorial ambitions were scuttled, Stewart’s not going away—he’s currently the frontrunner for the Republican nomination in the US Senate race in 2018.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.