At the same time, the policy’s breadth left it open to narrow attacks like the one made by Gillespie. Here’s the first half of the ad’s narration:
Last year, Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam instituted the automatic restoration of rights for violent felons and sex offenders, making it easier for them to obtain firearms and allowing them to serve on juries. One of these felons, John Bowen, had his rights restored two months after being found with one of the largest child-pornography collections in Virginia’s history. Forty-three prosecutors—Republicans, Democrats, and Independents—opposed Ralph Northam’s reckless policy. Now, Virginia law enforcement has endorsed Ed Gillespie for governor.
This part of the ad somewhat obscures Bowen’s timeline: The Times-Dispatch says McAuliffe restored the rights he lost from a previous conviction, and that Bowen had only been arrested and not yet convicted of the new offenses when the restoration happened. But the overall aesthetic evokes the tough-on-crime ads that dominated campaigning in the 1980s and 1990s: If you vote for my opponent, your family will be less safe.
In that sense, Gillespie’s new ad isn’t surprising, echoing its predecessors from all levels of American elections, with the infamous Willie Horton ad standing out in that dismal field. While the antagonist in this spot is white—unlike Horton, a black man George H.W. Bush’s campaign spotlighted in 1988—Gillespie’s campaign hasn’t shied away from appeals to racial animus, especially in the context of public safety. He maintained his support for Confederate statues after the white-nationalist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August. And he’s run multiple ads portraying Northam as too soft on MS-13, a Latin American gang and a political specter frequently invoked by the Trump administration.
But what’s truly unusual about the ad is how the message changes in its second half. From the transcript:
Virginians who have paid their debt to society and are living an honest life should have their rights restored. But Ralph Northam’s policy of automatic restoration of rights for unrepentant, unreformed, violent criminals is wrong. As governor, I’ll be both compassionate and protecting of Virginia families. I’m Ed Gillespie, candidate for governor, and I sponsored this ad.
The tonal shift is accompanied by an even more jarring visual one, as the ad cuts away from dark juxtapositions of Northam and an alleged child-pornography collector to a smiling, well-lit Gillespie at home. This is not a traditional closing pitch for tough-on-crime ads, to say the least, with Gillespie modifying the tried-and-true formula and conveying actual nuance in his policy prescription.
First, he endorses the general aim of McAuliffe’s policy, even if he says he wouldn’t apply it as universally as the current governor does. Second, he emphasizes that his interest in the issue goes beyond punishing criminals. Gillespie isn’t promising to drop the hammer; he wants to be “compassionate and protecting of Virginia families.”