Charlottesville and Trump’s Response Reshape Virginia Gubernatorial Race

Mr. Northam said in an interview that “an awakening” had taken place in Virginia after the Charlottesville violence that left one woman dead, many more wounded and a liberal college town convulsing.

“We have to be sensitive to all people’s feelings and represent all Virginians,” he said, criticizing his Republican opponent, Ed Gillespie, for not “denouncing the president” by name after Mr. Trump asserted that there were good people marching alongside Nazi sympathizers and Klansmen last weekend.

Yet Mr. Northam has little appetite to make Virginia’s counties and cities uproot their memorials to the Confederacy and says the decision should remain up to the localities.

Mr. Gillespie also believes local communities should make that decision. He argues that the statues should remain in place, but include added context clarifying that the lost cause they represent would have perpetuated slavery, not just the euphemistic “states’ rights” preferred by some traditionalists.

“Rather than glorifying their objects, the statues should be instructional,” Mr. Gillespie said in a lengthy written statement earlier in the week.

In an illustration of this state’s complicated politics, and the expectations of each party’s base, it is Mr. Northam, the descendant of slaveholders and a product of Virginia’s rural eastern shore, who is calling for the statues to come down, while Mr. Gillespie, a New Jersey native who moved to Northern Virginia after establishing a political career in Washington, is more closely aligned with the old guard.


In Their Own Words: What Some of the Charlottesville Rally Participants Stand For

Recent statements from participants at the protests.

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Each, though, hails from the establishment wing of their party. And the specter of an election shifting from a hard-fought but aboveboard clash over taxes, health care and the economy to an explosive debate about race and identity makes officials in both campaigns uneasy.

Democrats, while encouraged about having a tool to mobilize black voters in an off-year election, are cognizant of national polling that shows opposition to removing Confederate monuments is bipartisan. They also fear that conservative whites may come out in higher numbers to register their opposition.

Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, spoke for the more reticent in his party this week when he suggested they were better off keeping the focus on the more politically safe topic of neo-Nazis and the Klan. Democrats worry about Mr. Trump’s attempt to shift the debate to Confederate monuments and a slippery slope argument toward tearing down memorials to slaveholding founding fathers.

Mr. Schumer accused Mr. Trump of a ploy “to divert attention away from” his “refusal to unequivocally and full-throatedly denounce white supremacy, neo-Nazism, and other forms of bigotry.”

Yet many Republicans are equally wary about running a gubernatorial campaign with race as a centerpiece. Virginia is an increasingly progressive state, and in an election that is bound to become nationalized, evading Mr. Trump, a deeply unpopular figure in the most vote-rich regions here, would be all but impossible for Mr. Gillespie under those circumstances.

“It puts Ed in a tough spot,” said State Delegate David Albo, a veteran Republican legislator, alluding to the pressure Mr. Gillespie is under to distance himself from the president.

Or as Representative A. Donald McEachin, Democrat of Virginia, put it: “We have the gift that keeps on giving in Donald Trump. We don’t know what tomorrow’s news will bring.”

Compounding Mr. Gillespie’s challenge, Mr. Trump is not the only incendiary Republican looming over this campaign.

Corey Stewart, who in June narrowly lost the nomination for governor after making the statues a central part of his platform, has already started his 2018 bid for the seat held by Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat. Mr. Stewart, a Minnesotan by birth, is using that bullhorn to complain that Mr. Gillespie is being overly timid on the matter of Virginia’s Confederate history.

“He’s like some dainty old lady who doesn’t want to get her hands dirty,” said Mr. Stewart of his former rival, adding: “If he continues to try to stay above the monuments’ debate he will lose the election.”

The searing images of torches and mayhem on the University of Virginia’s iconic lawn and murder in the community that Mr. Jefferson made his home have left many in this state reeling, furious that a group of bigots from beyond the state’s borders have stained a place they revere.

Yet those outside agitators only reignited a debate that was inevitably going to return.

Virginia still venerates its past. That is why even a transplant like Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, took care to wear a tie bearing the state seal (Sic Semper Tyrannis) in his public appearances and appeared in a national television interview this week from the governor’s mansion standing in front of a portrait of Barbara Johns, the black teenage civil rights activist who in the 1950s protested Virginia’s segregated schools.

Yet many African-Americans have long since grown tired of such prominent Confederate iconography as the horse-bound generals on pedestals who loom over Monument Avenue in Richmond, the state capital and former capital of the Confederacy.

“You are amazed there could be a whole street dedicated to losers, except for Arthur Ashe,” said Mr. McEachin, who descends from slaves, referring to the local tennis great who was added to the boulevard over the protests of some white Virginians.

This state is also increasingly filled with new residents who see its ubiquitous rebel statues, schools and street names as, at best, a charming relic — but in many cases an ill-conceived homage to a past that should hardly be celebrated.

“The whole argument over the Confederacy and how we honor our history was bound to occur,” said state Senator Creigh Deeds, a Democrat, pointing to the increasing numbers of Virginians born elsewhere. “We’re a diverse state and strong because of it, but we have to figure out how to live side by side.”

In truth, those with different views increasingly don’t live together. Virginia effectively contains the political and social equivalent of Alabama and New Jersey within its borders, and its politics reflect this dichotomy. The affluent and educated urban crescent that stretches from the Washington suburbs down to Richmond and on to Virginia Beach votes differently from the poorer and more rural areas in much of the state’s south and west.

And this Balkanization increasingly shapes state politics as much as Virginia’s presidential preferences (it has supported the Democratic nominee in each of the last three elections). There are increasingly few Northern Virginia Republicans elected and rural Democrats such as Mr. Deeds, have become just as scarce.

Because the state — or “the commonwealth,” as Virginia’s political leaders dutifully call it — is now so sharply divided, few were much surprised when Mr. Gillespie and Mr. Northam staked out their positions on the state’s civic canonization of the Confederacy. Their voters demanded it.

“If you’re Northam, how do you go to black churches this fall and say, ‘We’re going to do something about those monuments: Every locality can decide for themselves?’ ” asked Larry Sabato, the University of Virginia political scientist who witnessed the white supremacist rally from his home on the school’s lawn. “Nobody would applaud.”

Mr. Northam said the moment called for leadership and he was acting out of conviction. But asked about the many Confederate images at his alma mater, Virginia Military Institute, he signaled that he would no force the issue.

He said he would prefer to see the rebel monuments at V.M.I. taken down. But Mr. Northam also twice said the decision would be left to the school’s governing board.

Many in the political middle here fault Mr. Trump for effectively weaponizing the conversation.

“We need a rational debate, but I’m afraid the emotion of the moment after what Trump did just destroyed the opportunity for that discussion,” said Mr. Deeds, who did not criticize Mr. Northam but made clear he thinks localities should be free to decide the monument issue.

Yet much like the aftermath of the 2015 rampage by a white supremacist in a South Carolina black church, there is an impulse in Virginia to take a tangible step toward healing.

“This state is no longer a history lesson suspended in animation,” Mr. Sabato said. “This was a disaster for Virginia, and people want to put a period on it.”

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