After a contentious race for governor in Virginia, the campaign managers for the two major candidates had a few flashpoints as they reflected on the contest in Arlington on Monday night.
Chris Leavitt, who managed Republican Ed Gillespie’s campaign, said his opposite number on Democratic candidate Ralph Northam’s campaign, Brad Komar, was a “liar” for saying he and his colleagues had no knowledge of an attack ad run by the Latino Victory Fund against the Republican.
Komar said the ad came from a community that felt it was “under attack,” but that the Northam campaign was not involved.
“It’s not how I would have responded,” he said. “We did not see the ad; I did not authorize it.”
The ad showed a white man in a pickup truck with a Gillespie bumper sticker and a Confederate flag threatening minority children. It ran on Spanish-language channels for two days before being taken down after the terrorist attack in New York by a man driving a pickup truck.
The pair were in conversation before more than 250 people at George Mason University’s Arlington campus at an event by the Virginia Public Access Project and GMU’s Schar School of Policy and Government. It came less than a week after Northam beat Gillespie to the governor’s mansion, thanks in part to the 68,315 votes he received in Arlington to Gillespie’s 16,160.
Komar said he regretted the campaign leaving then-lieutenant governor candidate Justin Fairfax, who also triumphed last week in a Democratic clean sweep alongside Attorney General Mark Herring, off a mailer that was sent to some houses in Northern Virginia.
At the time, the campaign said it was accommodating the Laborers’ International Union of North America, which did not endorse Fairfax as he opposes two planned natural gas pipelines, but endorsed the other two.
“We handled a regular, normal thing badly,” Komar said, noting that it should not have been sent out by the campaign but by someone else.
Leavitt defended the Gillespie campaign’s decision to run television ads attacking Northam as weak on the Central American street gang MS-13, and supporting so-called “Sanctuary Cities,” where local authorities do not cooperate with federal immigration enforcement.
Such “sanctuaries” do not exist in Virginia, but Leavitt said that the Gillespie campaign had data that suggested that some independent voters were concerned about a rise in crime committed by illegal immigrants.
“You have to pick certain spots where there are avenues where you can go after your opponent,” Leavitt said. “This was one of those avenues.”
And Leavitt said trying to find weaknesses in Northam to attack was especially problematic, given his personal history as a U.S. Army doctor then a pediatric neurologist, as well as a stellar career in Richmond.
He said the Gillespie campaign hoped for a bruising Democratic primary against former Rep. Tom Perriello to expose more weaknesses.
“Frankly, the Governor-Elect did not have as many vulnerabilities as we would have liked, and we thought a primary could open up a few more,” Leavitt said.
Looming over the race was President Donald Trump, who was elected last year and has inspired more Democratic activism but left many Republicans walking a tightrope on whether to embrace his rhetoric.
Leavitt said that while it may have appeared Gillespie struggled to find that balance, campaign staff were determined to keep the race about Virginia issues and not “nationalize” it.
Trump did not campaign for Gillespie, and criticized him on Twitter for not embracing “me or what I stand for.”
“At the time, it seemed like the right path,” Leavitt said, noting Gillespie’s emphasis on providing policy to help Virginians rather than be dragged into the national discussion.
For his part, Komar said he and his colleagues looked to capitalize on Gillespie’s apparent reluctance to embrace Trump.
“Trumpism without Trump, I think, is a win for us,” Komar said.
Both agreed that they did not see the wave of anti-Trump sentiment coming in Virginia, a sentiment that has helped almost wipe out Republicans’ advantage in the House of Delegates.
And Komar said the Northam campaign looked to capitalize on Republicans’ inability to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and shift the attention onto Virginia’s proposed expansion of Medicaid under the ACA, unsuccessful both through the General Assembly and executive action.
“The fact that this remained an issue through the election… this was very important,” Komar said.
“It wasn’t an area where we really wanted to debate,” Leavitt said in response. “We wanted to turn the conversation to something else.”
With this year’s elections over, political attention now shifts to the 2018 mid-terms. Both said that with full control of government, it is on Republicans to get something done, or else they will face the wrath of voters.
Republicans have a “lot to think about and recalibrate,” Leavitt said. “Good luck, because it’s going to be a challenge.”