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Can Virginia's Democratic win revive 'big tent' politics?

By Clarence Page, Tribune Content Agency on

Whew! That big whooshing sound you heard Tuesday night was largely Democrats who could stop holding their breath in suspense. And they weren't alone.

"I am pleased that pandering to racists and neo-Confederates," tweeted Bruce Bartlett, a former economic policy expert in the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, "appears to have failed in Virginia." Bartlett is a "big tent" Republican, who for decades has pressed the party of Abraham Lincoln to be more welcoming to minorities again.

Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie was a big-tent Republican, too, when he chaired the Republican National Committee. But to motivate the Grand Old Party's base in neck-and-neck contest against Democrat Ralph Northam, the state's lieutenant governor, Gillespie's ads took on the belligerently nativist tone of President Donald Trump.

One Gillespie ad blamed Northam for "increasing the threat of MS-13," a notorious Hispanic street gang, by voting against a bill that would have banned "sanctuary cities," which limit some or all of their cooperation with federal immigration authorities.

Never mind that Virginia doesn't even have any "sanctuary cities." As a Northam spokesman put it, Gillespie's campaign took a page out of the Trump playbook by "butchering the facts to try and frighten the voters."

Northam's campaign fired back with an ad that called Gillespie "Enron Ed," mocking his background as a corporate lobbyist for, among others, the energy giant that imploded in an accounting scandal.

But Northam denounced an attack ad that an outside group called Latino Victory Fund broadcast against Gillespie. Featuring a pickup truck with Gillespie stickers and a Confederate flag chasing children, that ad probably did more to inflame Trump voters to turn out against Northam than win him more support.

Happily, it was the wrong year for Trump-style resentment politics in Virginia. Exit polling shows signs that Trump's name has become as galvanizing for liberals as Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama have been for conservatives.

A particularly notable shift in political winds showed itself in the down-ballot defeat of 13-term Republican state Delegate Robert Marshall by former journalist Danica Roem -- which made her this nation's first openly transgender person to be elected to a state legislature.

Conservative Marshall boldly campaigned as the state's "chief homophobe." But Roem's campaign focused not on transgenders, but on transportation, a major issue in her suburban Washington district.

For her it appears to have been a winning issue. Culture war arguments have their place but, more important, people want to get to work.

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(E-mail Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.)

(c) 2017 CLARENCE PAGE DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.
 

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