The Real Fireworks: Gillespie vs. Trump

Now that the primary elections are over, Virginia's upcoming general election is becoming the center of national attention. The state is one of only two having elections this fall; and with New Jersey's race largely non-competitive, the battle for Virginia governor will become the latest proxy war for national Democrats and Republicans.

And so last week we saw the Republican nominee for Governor, Ed Gillespie, releasing a campaign video that called for... legalizing fireworks in Virginia?

In a campaign ad posted online, Gillespie called Virginia’s fireworks "rinky dink," noting that the state was missing out on job creation and tax revenue. He promised to let Virginians "have some fun" by making more serious fireworks legal.

Yes, it’s obviously the right time to talk about fireworks with Independence Day ready to frighten the nation’s pets. But with Virginia’s election essentially becoming nationalized, and with the country talking about healthcare and immigration, why focus on such a... well, rinky-dink issue?

The ad is a telling one, particularly because it is the first major policy effort from the Gillespie campaign after their candidate's narrower-than-expected win in the Republican primary. Heavily favored over Corey Stewart, a little-known county official, the longtime political consultant won by only a few thousand votes. Finding that his strongly anti-immigration stance seemingly wasn’t enough to rally conservatives, Stewart decided to go full-on Confederate. He waged a twitter campaign on behalf of Confederate monuments, defended the Confederate battle flag, and even showed up to Danville's Old South Ball engaging in, at least some thought, Confederate cosplay.

Stewart was dismissed by many observers as a joke. And yet he almost toppled the long-time frontrunner Gillespie, turning out red-blooded conservatives who felt they were ignored by the party establishment. Sound familiar? It should, considering Stewart himself noted that "I was Trump before Trump was Trump."

So while Gillespie prevailed, he finds himself facing a divided party: he’s beloved by the Virginia Republican establishment, who see him as the tested conservative candidate who would have defeated Senator Mark Warner in 2014 with more national party support. But he’s mistrusted by the conservative party base, who much prefer the red-meat politics of Corey Stewart and Donald Trump.

Gillespie's dilemma, of course, is one that many Republicans are likely to face in the 2018 national elections: Trump is still embraced by their base, but is immensely (bigly?) unpopular with the rest of humanity. The President’s approval ratings are at historic lows, and the Republican Party’s chief policy goal of the year, healthcare "reform," is almost as unpopular.

And this is the story of this Virginia gubernatorial campaign. Gillespie's real opponent is not the Democratic nominee, Lt. Governor Ralph Northam, but the Twitter troll currently occupying the White House. How much should, or even can, Gillespie embrace an unpopular national figure? How can he reach out to moderate voters without alienating his base?

This fireworks gambit appears to be the Gillespie campaign’s first try at an answer. I'm not the only one noticing this; The Washington Post’s Laura Vozzella speculated that this latest video showed Gillespie "hoping to appeal to individual liberties-minded voters" who voted for his primary opponent. Looking for an issue that might fire up your conservative base, without ticking off more moderate voters? Why not fireworks?

The problem for Gillespie is whether going small will move the needle enough. Fireworks is NOT as important to conservatives as Confederate monuments, or immigration, so he may not get enough of a bounce from such a minor appeal. At the same time, Gillespie runs the risk of sounding tone-deaf to those moderate, Northern Virginia Republicans and any independents (if such creatures exist) who worry Trump and the GOP are taking the country in the wrong direction. It’s far too early to panic, but initial polling has shown Gillespie already behind.

Northam's campaign pounced on the fireworks video, using it to turn the attention back to healthcare - and Gillespie’s silence on the issue. A Northam spokesman wryly noted that his candidate "likes fireworks as much as anyone, but he also wants to make sure you can afford health care in case you accidentally blow your hand off with one. We'd like to know if Ed believes the Republicans' healthcare plans will actually allow for that."

That's the key question: can Gillespie continue to remain silent on national politics? Or will his attempt to focus only on small issues provide too little bang?

(My apologies; it’s hard to avoid the fireworks puns on a story like this.)