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Race Baiting for Votes

Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace is shown in this Oct. 19, 1964 photo speaking in Glen Burnie, Md. at a rally supporting Republican presidential candidate Sen. Barry Goldwater. (AP Photo)

George Wallace was a terrible human being. In his early career as a judge, he had a reputation for treating African-American lawyers in his courtroom with an unheard of amount of respect, even as he was a complete and unreconstructed racist in private (which also applies to Lyndon Johnson). But once he realized that his only way to become governor of Alabama was to race-bait, he became the biggest and most skilled race-baiter of them all. A brilliant politician whose ambition was so overwhelming that he cared about nothing else in life, he was perfectly fine directly causing the deaths of black people if it raised his profile and political prospects.

Of course, that could work in a 1-party state such as Alabama. Watching Ed Gillespie do this in Virginia is another thing altogether.

“Who will keep your family safe?” begins the attack ad, blasting the Democratic candidate for casting “the deciding vote in favor of sanctuary cities that let illegal immigrants back on the street,” over the sound of police sirens.

That’s not an unusual tone for a GOP ad, especially in the Trump era. But the candidate it says will “get tough on illegal immigration” is surprising: Virginia gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie, who for more than a decade has been one of the GOP’s loudest champions for immigration reform.

The spot, Gillespie’s first negative ad ahead of this November’s election, is part of his dramatic rightward tonal shift on immigration issues. And it shows how difficult a balancing act Republicans face in swing territory, torn between a furious base and suburban swing voters who detest President Trump.

Not long ago, Gillespie was a leading voice pushing his party to embrace immigrants.

He chaired the Republican National Committee under President George W. Bush, playing a key role in pushing Bush’s failed efforts at comprehensive immigration reform. He was one of the masterminds behind Bush’s 2004 campaign that actively wooed Latinos — including the “Viva Bush” yard signs that popped up across the nation — and helped Bush hit the high water mark of recent GOP nominees with more than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote, according to exit polls.

As chairman of the Republican State Leadership Committee, a group focused on state-level races, Gillespie laid out the goal of recruiting 100 Hispanic GOP candidates for the 2014 elections. And he was deeply involved in helping pro-immigration reform Republicans develop their message ahead of the failed 2013 push for comprehensive immigration reform, conducting message testing, polling and focus groups to figure out how to sell conservative voters on the issue.

And note that Gillespie has already won his primary. He barely won it against an extremist, but he did win it. How does this work out for him in the general? I guess the strategy is to get the racist GOP base to come out in droves, but they will never see him as their guy. Meanwhile, Gillespie used to be the type of Republican who could still win in Virginia–a fiscal conservative and social moderate who might peel off voters in the DC suburbs. But this is not going to play there at all. It seems like a loser move by a loser candidate.

Gillespie may have the ambition of George Wallace and he may be willing to race-bait like Wallace, but he certainly does not have the political skill of Wallace.

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