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Virginia Election Battleground: All Eyes on Whether Virginia GOP Will Once Again Embrace Failed Anti-Immigrant Politics

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Last night, Virginia Democrats chose their nominees for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General, setting up the general election matchups for this fall. In addition, all 100 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates are on the ballot in November.

The stakes are high for immigration politics and policy. For the past two years, Democrats have controlled the governor’s office, the State Senate and the House of Delegates. With that trifecta, Virginia Democrats enacted several important pro-immigration laws, including a state Dream Act and driver privilege cards. 

The highest-profile race in November will be for Virginia governor, pitting former Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe against the Republican nominee, Glenn Youngkin. During his primary campaign, Youngkin was endorsed by Ted Cruz and Corey Stewart and, after he won, he was endorsed by Donald Trump. A wealthy businessman, Youngkin beat out some of the most radical far-right candidates last month, but is attempting to now appeal to both the Virginia GOP’s hardline primary base and the Virginia general electorate.

In recent election cycles, Virginia Republicans’ embrace of anti-immigrant politics and xenophobia backfired in the general election. Will Glenn Youngkin and other Virginia Republicans on the ballot in 2021 again repeat the failed anti-immigrant campaigns of recent Virginia Republicans? 

Virginia Republicans’ Failed Anti-Immigrant Politics

In 2017 in the Virginia’s governor’s race, Ed Gillespie, who was seen as another Republican from the business wing of the party, 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%. 

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 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. Needless to say, they were wrong. Voters rejected the ugly xenophobic campaign and Gillespie ended up losing by 9 percentage points. Northam pollster Geoff Garin said that Gillespie’s racialized immigration attacks backfired: “There was a very negative reaction among college educated voters and swing voters generally to his MS-13 ads.”

During the 2018 cycle, Corey Stewart, running hard on the same kind of anti-immigrant campaign, lost the 2018 Senate race to Democratic incumbent Senator Tim Kaine by a whopping 57.1% – 41.1% margin.

Youngkin’s early endorsement by Stewart may signal a campaign that will resort to the same failed strategic racism messaging utilized by Gillespie, Stewart, and other Republicans over the past few years. While trying to avoid the subject of the Big Lie,  Youngkin has already leaned into another issue pushed by Republicans around the country by stating he would have the back of Loudoun County teacher teacher who “opposes using students’ preferred pronouns “because it would damage children and defile the holy image of God.” 

Virginians Support Pro-Immigrant Policies

Virginians have shown strong support for immigration reform. In May, 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. Numbers and recent history that the newly selected Democratic nominees need to keep in mind as they build out their campaign. The GOP is likely to run strategic racist messages, but these messages can backfire. Especially, if Democrats name them the game for what it is – a tactical racial division and a distraction from the solutions that voters want and need. Voters overwhelmingly support solutions that provide a pathway to citizenship to our neighbors, family, and friends. Virginia Democratic candidates should lean in on the issue and the good legislative work that they have already accomplished.  

According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice, “Republicans have not been shy about their plans to deploy immigration as a wedge issue in upcoming elections. But given the demonstrated failures of their anti-immigrant strategy in recent Virginia general elections, we’ll be watching to see if they are doomed to repeat the same old failed strategies. In states like Virginia and in swing districts that decide which party wins majorities, racism and xenophobia backfires with the multiracial majority of the electorate.”