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Election Year in Virginia May Again Signal GOP is Sticking with Xenophobic Messaging

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2021 is an election year in Virginia with Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General and all 100 seats in the House of Delegates on the ballot. Republicans will pick the nominees for their party’s top offices this weekend at a convention while Democrats will choose theirs through a primary on June 8.

As voters start to make those decisions, this week, the Wason Center for Civic Leadership at Christopher Newport University released a poll of Virginia voters, which found “A large majority of Virginia voters support/strongly support providing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S. (73%), while an even larger majority support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought here as children (78%).” The poll analysis also noted, “majorities in both parties show support for providing undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship.” For Democrats, support/strongly support is 89%, with Republicans, it’s 55% and independents are at 84%. For a pathway to citizenship for “Dreamers” Democrats are at 91% support/strongly support, Republicans at 62%, and independents are at 86%.

Those are very strong numbers, as good or even better than national polls, and show a strong consensus for immigrants and immigration reform in Virginia.

Against that backdrop, Virginia Republicans are choosing their nominee for the 2021 Governor’s race. Seven candidates are vying for that role, which will be decided by a convention of 53,000 party activists. It’s already clear that fealty to Donald Trump and the “big lie,” plus continued attacks on immigrants, are an integral part of Virginia (and national) Republican messaging.

In early March, Pete Snyder, whose campaign is co-chaired by Ken Cuccinelli among others, launched an ad with an anti-immigrant message, featuring images of “violent illegals” that have appeared in GOP ads for the past few years. He also recently touted the endorsement of “the leaders of Trump’s immigration team.”

And, then there’s State Senator Amanda Chase who is Virginia’s version of Marjorie Taylor Greene and Donald Trump wrapped into one extremist. Other top candidates are executive Glenn Youngkin, who was endorsed by Texas Senator Ted Cruz, and Delegate Kirk Cox, who served as Speaker of the House of Delegates until Democrats took control in the 2019 elections. 

The field also includes retired Army Colonel Sergio de la Peña, who served as former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Trump administration. Octavia Johnson who was Sheriff of Roanoke City 2006-2013, and Peter Doran, founder and Chairman of Let’s Win, Virginia!

Clearly, Republicans are aware they’ve got problems, particularly in vote-rich – and very diverse – Northern Virginia. At a recent forum, the candidates explained how they were going to make a dent in the growing Democratic margins. Former GOP State Delegate David Ramadan explained the challenge to DCist, “[The convention] will only be attended by the hardcore base. And in order to win that, the candidates are catering to issues that will not work in the general elections and therefore being pro-Trump, being anti-immigration, being critical of the school systems, being critical of the COVID-19 protections and measures that the governor has taken,” he says. “All of these are issues that the average voter cares about and puts the Republicans at odds with that electorate and therefore unlikely to be able to win any statewide elections any time soon.”

That article went on to note, “A similar dynamic bedeviled Republican contender Ed Gillespie in his 2017 race against Northam; while he was long known as a moderate and establishment-minded member of the GOP, he ran further to the right after a bruising primary battle with Corey Stewart by focusing on issues like Confederate monuments and immigration.”


The 2017 Virginia’s governor’s race was the initial example of an anti-immigrant strategy backfiring badly on Republican candidates in the Trump era. It was the first statewide election in the Trump presidency and the GOP nominee, Ed Gillespie, who was seen as an “establishment” Republican, was pulled to the right during a contested primary with long-time xenophobe Corey Stewart. Gillespie, who was expected to win the nomination handily, defeated Stewart by under 5,000 votes, a margin of 43.71% to 42.53%. 

During the general election, instead of moving to the center in a state that had been trending blue, Gillespie doubled down on the anti-immigrant attacks. His campaign’s ads tried to use the threat of the US-founded international gang MS-13 as the lens to view all Latino immigrants and tried to claim that Democratic candidate Ralph Northam was weak on crime. Gillespie pressed the issue attacking ‘sanctuary cities’, of which there are none in the state. 

In the lead-up to election day, political observers and pundits, including Steve K. Bannon, believed Gillespie’s strategy would work — and would serve as a model for other Republicans. “Corey Stewart is the reason Gillespie is going to win,” Bannon, the former White House chief strategist and Trump’s campaign czar, said in an interview. “It was the Trump-Stewart talking points that got Gillespie close and even maybe to victory. It was embracing Trump’s agenda as personified by Corey’s platform.” 

On the day before the election, a Morning Joe Panel on MSNBC confidently predicted a Gillespie win. Boy, were they wrong.

In fact, that Trump-Stewart strategy backfired among voters of nearly every demographic, and Northam won by 9 points – a much wider margin than anyone expected. As UCLA Professor Matt Barreto wrote in a New York Times op-ed, election eve Virginia polling conducted for the AAPI Victory Fund, the African American Research Collaborative, America’s Voice, CASA in Action, Latino Victory Fund, and NextGen America, found much evidence of the backlash:

By a 23-point margin (52 to 29), whites in Virginia also said the MS-13 ads turned them away from Mr. Gillespie, as did African-American and Asian-American voters by larger margins. Data speaks louder than punditry, and our regression analysis of survey data paints a clear picture. 

Exposure to Mr. Gillespie’s MS-13 ads actually helped drive white college-educated voters away from the Republicans. When we analyzed findings for white independents and Republicans, voters who were aware of the MS-13 ads were significantly more likely to vote for Mr. Gillespie’s Democratic opponent.

It wasn’t just the Governor’s race in Virginia where racist ads were used. A number of the Republican candidates running for the Virginia state legislature followed Gillespie’s strategy and shared his failures. In HD 93, Republican Heather Cordasco also attempted to use Virigina’s nonexistent sanctuary cities in a failed effort to beat Democrat Mike Mullin. Scott Lingamfelter of House District 31 lost his seat to Democrat Elizabeth Guzman after his attempt to equate undocumented immigrants’ ability to obtain a driver’s license with violent crime. Democrat Jennifer Foy won House District 2 after an attempt to attack her support for in-state tuition for undocumented students fell flat. Overall, despite the onslaught, Democrats picked up 15 seats, narrowing the GOP’s control from 66-34 to 51-49.

Several Republicans made similar attacks in 2019 campaigns. In four races for the Virginia House of Delegates where the Republicans used anti-immigrant messaging, Democrats won. In House District 21, the blatant xenophobia of a mailer produced by the Republican Party of Virginia caught the attention of the local press, and Democrat Kelly Convirs-Fowler held on to her seat anyway. In House District 40, Republican incumbent Tim Hugo ran TV and Facebook ads attempting to secure votes by stirring fears about MS-13. Hugo lost his seat to Democrat Dan Helmer. (Hugo is now a candidate for Lieutenant Governor and recently accused of launching a homophobic attack against one of his GOP competitors.) Mailers using xenophobic messaging were also used in House District 28 against Joshua Cole and in House District 85 against Alex Askew; both Democrats went on to win their competitive races. 

In the wake of those 2019 elections, Democrats took control of the Virginia State Senate and the House of Delegates. With a blue triumvirate, Virginia Democrats enacted several important pro-immigration laws, including a state Dream Act. Most of the GOP candidates including Snyder, de la Peña oppose the legislation. Senator Chase and Delegate Cox voted against the legislation. As noted above, 94% of Virginia voters support “Dreamers.”

Republicans have used the Trump anti-immigrant playbook for years now without success. Besides Trump’s loss in 2020, the most glaring example was Virginia. As of now, it sure looks like the Virginia GOP is sticking with that strategy – despite polls showing strong support, even among Republican voters, in the Commonwealth for immigration reform.