He told me he feels all the more strongly about Virginia’s history as a “Virginian by choice,” and insisted his campaign is an appeal to the historical sensibility of all races—not, as it might seem, a naked embodiment of the worst liberal stereotypes about the GOP’s reliance on white identity politics.
The Civil War, Stewart told me, was fought “in part” over slavery, but was “more an issue of state’s rights”; Robert E. Lee was “a historic figure who after the war was over worked to reunify the country.” (My colleague Adam Serwer recently thoroughly examined such claims about Lee’s historical legacy.) But the larger point, he said, was “this movement to destroy sculpture, public art, to sanitize history—I think that most people, regardless of their race, find that disturbing.”
Trump has not taken sides in the contest, though Stewart has released a list of endorsements from Trump campaign veterans, some of whom are working on his campaign. Gillespie, for his part, has staked his campaign on an opposing theory of the case, betting that what Virginia Republicans want is an antidote to Trump: practical, conventional, inoffensive, and most of all electable, in a state that bucked the GOP wave and went for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Fueled by job growth in the D.C. suburbs, Virginia has undergone a rapid demographic and political transformation in recent years. More than half of the state’s residents are now non-native; the population is heavily college-educated, with large numbers of immigrants and African Americans. In the Post poll last month, 59 percent of Virginians disapproved of Trump, 52 percent of them strongly. Trump narrowly won the Virginia GOP primary last year, with 35 percent of the vote, and still has the approval of 77 percent of Virginia Republicans. (The former FBI director James Comey lives in Virginia and has been a registered Republican, but did not vote in 2016.)
The new face of Virginia was evident when I followed Gillespie to a county festival in Northern Virginia on Sunday. As I waited for the candidate at the Fairfax County Republican Party’s booth, a group of dark-skinned women in headscarves and long robes approached, gladly accepting paper fans bearing the name of a candidate for county supervisor handed out by a volunteer in a white Make America Great Again hat. Another volunteer, a retiree named Tom Altmeyer, told me he’d been pals with Gillespie since Altmeyer’s days as a lobbyist for the mining industry.
Gillespie strode down the sun-drenched fairway in a striped shirt with rolled-up sleeves, sunglasses perched atop his side-parted gray hair. A tall man in khaki shorts and suede loafers eagerly shook his hand, telling him he was eager to cast his vote for Gillespie as a newly naturalized American citizen from South Africa.
“I’m confident that our message is resonating everywhere—people like the specific policies I’ve put forward to get Virginia growing again,” Gillespie told me, as screams emanated from a roller coaster behind us. His message is focused on economic issues, which he says are more important to voters here than the polarizing cultural issues Stewart emphasizes. To the charge that he has distanced himself from the president, Gillespie replies, “I voted for President Trump. I want President Trump to succeed in creating jobs and making us more safe as a nation. But the governorship is about state politics.”
Stopping by the booth of a local Baptist church, Gillespie fell into conversation with two church volunteers who wanted to know his stance on abortion. (He opposes it, with some exceptions, and has been endorsed by the National Right to Life Committee.) They had, they said, been receiving lots of confusing robo-calls talking about issues like sanctuary cities and transgender bathrooms—were those coming from his campaign?
Gillespie laughed. “No, no, no,” he said. “That’s the other guy.”