Ever since Ralph Northam launched the first TV spot of the 2017 Virginia gubernatorial election back in April, the attack ad contest between him and Republican rival Ed Gillespie has been coming to a fierce boil.
Gillespie has often seized upon Northam’s failure to attend pivotal meetings during his tenure in state government—Northam has served as the state’s lieutenant governor since 2013. On the other side of the aisle, Northam’s favorite way to taunt Gillespie is by jabbing at his history as a lobbyist in Washington and criticizing his professional ties to corporations like Enron and Koch Industries.
Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University, told The Virginian-Pilot that at this point in the race, attack ads become crucial as they target undecided voters that exist somewhere in the partisan middle.
“They basically are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting over each vote – an inch of land. This is where the money and the fundraising may have an impact as we move into the last two or three weeks of this race,” said Kidd.
But renowned political analyst and Virginia resident Larry Sabato has said that investment in TV attacks might not be money well spent. “I’m a big believer that, in a polarized era, you should put your money in voter ID and get out the vote,” Sabato said. “You’re not going to change minds in our election right now. … Everyone is so dug in you’re not going to make converts.”
Nonetheless, the gloves have come off in Virginia’s governor race, and the TV battle is intense.
Gillespie recently released an ad claiming that Northam had “skipped economic development meetings” in addition to missing every single homeland security meeting while in office. “When he actually showed up for work, Northam voted in favor of sanctuary cities, increasing the threat of MS-13” the ad says. “Ralph Northam. Not doing his job. Putting Virginia families at risk.”
The phrase “not doing his job” has become a slogan for the Gillespie campaign in their ads targeting Northam, which have also criticized the lieutenant governor for failing to show up to a budget meeting with a state sheriff’s group “just because sheriffs don’t support Northam’s campaign for governor.”
Additionally, the Republican candidate has jabbed at a failed business deal orchestrated by Northam and Governor Terry McAuliffe that resulted in a loss of over $1 million for the state.
Other attack ads from the Gillespie camp include titles like “Ralph Northam: Ducking and Dodging,” “Ralph Northam Thinks You’re Rich,” and “Ralph Northam’s Risky Policies.”
His self-focused ads have highlighted his economic growth plan and income tax cut, his opposition to the removal of Confederate monuments from public spaces and endorsements from state law enforcement officials.
Americans for Prosperity, a group backed by oil giant Koch Industries, has also invested a cool million funding anti-Northam TV spots. A spokesman for the organization told The Washington Post that its most recent ad buy was in the $1 million to $2 million range, in addition to $300,000 it previously spend on other campaign materials.
“Don’t show up for work? You’d get fired. Waste a million bucks? You’d get fired. Unless you’re a politician like Ralph Northam,” says the Americans for Prosperity ad, reiterating similar attacks on Northam made by Gillespie’s campaign.
Northam’s ad strategy also appears to revolve around Gillespie’s work history—the K Street political strategist co-founded a top Washington lobby group that was sold to communications giant WPP in 2004 for a reported $40 million.
A recent TV spot told voters that Gillespie “didn’t care about college students when he lobbied to keep their student loan rates high,” adding that Gillespie had also lobbied in favor of job outsourcing and on behalf of Wall Street banks.
“Ed Gillespie made millions selling out to the highest bidder,” the ad says. “He’ll sell you out, too.”
In another ad entitled “Enron Ed,” Northam appears at the beginning in a white lab coat holding a baby—he is a pediatric neurologist—before a voiceover intones, “They call him Enron Ed, because Ed Gillespie represented the worst of the worst.”
The ad reiterates other attacks on Gillespie’s lobby record, claiming, “Now, Enron Ed is lobbying for Donald Trump’s agenda, like cuts to Virginia school funding and taking away healthcare for thousands of Virginians.”
The ad finishes, “Enron Ed Gillespie, he’s not lobbying for you.”
Other ads from Northam’s camp have attacked Gillespie’s claim that he is a small business owner—his firm, Ed Gillespie Strategies, reported nearly $3 million in partnership distributions in 2014—and criticized his opposition to same-sex marriage and pro-choice legislation.
In several spots, Northam has resorted to defending himself against the accusations levied by Gillespie, saying that the Republican’s claims are “nothing more than a page from Trump’s playbook.”
Northam’s self-focused ads tend to style the Democrat as a good old boy, depicting him rebuilding an Oldsmobile engine or standing in front of the Chesapeake Bay speaking about the small town where he grew up.
They also highlight endorsements from veterans and discuss the lieutenant governor’s plans to expand economic development in rural areas and his support for climate change regulation.
Virginia voters head to the polls on November 7.