The centerpiece of Republican gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie’s economic plan is an across-the-board tax cut he says will spur tens of thousands of new jobs — but he promises it will take effect only if it doesn’t break the budget.
Ralph Northam, his Democratic opponent, says it’s a given that tax cuts will hurt the state’s bottom line. His economic plan calls for a tax commission to study the issue, with an eye for a simpler, “fair” system.
Voters will choose Tuesday which of those plans makes more sense to them, along with the state’s direction on everything from local immigration enforcement policy to perennial social issues such as abortion and gun control, and even to who is more likely to cooperate with President Trump.
Analysts say the policy debate has been wanting for a variety of reasons, including the fixation on President Trump and the rest of the goings-on in Washington, which have crowded out two state candidates struggling with a charisma gap and a desire not to ruffle any feathers on either side of the aisle.
“The have both managed to muddy their message to the point where I challenge any resident of the Commonwealth to tell me anything these guys will do as governor,” said Mike McKenna, a Richmond-based GOP consultant. “If you blind taste tested them, nobody could tell the difference.”
“You could get more people who could tell the difference between Coke and Pepsi than you could with these two guys in a blind taste test,” he said. “I guarantee it.”
At first glance, immigration might be a prime area for disagreement. Mr. Trump has infused the issue with partisan overtones, and Republicans and Democrats are fiercely debating the next steps on Capitol Hill.
But in Virginia, there’s not a whole lot either nominee can do, despite spending a lot of time talking about it.
Mr. Gillespie says he would crack down on sanctuary cities, blaming them for the violent MS-13 gang — though he also says there aren’t any sanctuary cities in the state right now. He accuses Mr. Northam — who also says there aren’t any sanctuaries — of going soft on the issue by opposing a bill that would have prohibited them, should any locality try to become one.
“It’s clear he’s just against a ban on sanctuary cities and is in favor of allowing them in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” Mr. Gillespie said last month.
The Northam campaign counters that Mr. Gillespie is pulling a page out of Mr. Trump’s fear-mongering playbook.
“He’s gone from a K Street lobbyist to President Trump’s chief lobbyist,” Mr. Northam said. “To attack a veteran, No. 1, and a doctor who has taken care of sick children and their families for most of my adult life and talk about how I am fighting for MS-13 gangs across the commonwealth of Virginia, one it is inaccurate and two it is despicable.”
Mr. Northam has been joined by the Latino Victory Fund, a liberal immigrant-rights group, that released a vicious ad showing a Confederate flag toting truck with a pro-Gillespie sticker stalked Hispanic, black and Muslim children through the streets.
The group pulled the ad this week, in the wake of the New York City terrorist attack in which a man driving a rental truck mowed down people on a bike path.
The candidates also split over whether illegal immigrants should be issued driver’s licenses. Mr. Northam supports the idea. Mr. Gillespie does not.
But they generally agree on young adult illegal immigrants known as “Dreamers,” with Mr. Northam supporting a path to citizenship for them, while Mr. Gillespie supports granting legal status that could be short of full citizenship.
Economy and taxes
The two men have seriously different views of the state’s economic health.
Mr. Northam, a pediatric neurologist and former military doctor who is the current lieutenant governor, says Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe has done a fine job since 2014, noting a drop in the state’s unemployment, record-setting job creation, billions in capital investment and an uptick in salaries and wages.
The Democratic nominee is vowing to expand Medicaid under Obamacare, wants to do away with the state sales tax on groceries and plans to task a panel with devising ways to simplify the Virginia’s tax code.
Mr. Gillespie, a former Republican Party chief and senior adviser in President George W. Bush’s White House, says Mr. Northam’s tax vision is short on specifics. He says the state’s economy is sputtering and lagging behind where it should be on job creation and wages.
He says he can turn things around with an across-the-board, 10 percent reduction in income taxes paid, predicting it will spur 50,000 new jobs and $300 million a year in new economic activity.
The plan, Mr. Gillespie says, will be phased in and includes “revenue triggers” that he insists will ensure the plan is fiscally sound.
“It is an unusually fiscally responsible approach to tax cuts,” said Stephen J. Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington. “Normally you pass a tax cut and you don’t deal with the consequences on the front end.”
But that may be hurting Mr. Gillespie’s ability to capture the tax-cutting fervor of previous GOP candidates such as former Gov. James S. Gilmore III, who cruised to victory 20 years ago on his “No Car Tax” pledge.
“The truth is a possible tax cut doesn’t really excite voters like the promise of a tax cut would,” Mr. Farnsworth said. “Responsible lawmaking in other words isn’t as exciting or compelling to voters.”
Mr. Northam points to an analysis from the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis that says Mr. Gillespie’s plan would blow a $1.4 billion hole in the state budget.
The Commonwealth Institute also questioned the feasibility of Mr. Northam desire to scrap the sales tax on groceries, which they estimate carries $381 million price tag and like the Gillespie tax plan raises questions about how the candidates plan to pay for other campaign proposals, such as their pledges to raise teachers pay.
“Tax cuts sound good in a campaign platform, but their costs in foregone investment or cuts to public services must also be considered,” Lauren Goren, a research director, said in the group’s analysis. “Failure to do so amounts to basing public policy on nothing more than wishful thinking.”
Perhaps the hottest issue in the campaign this year has been the controversy over Confederate memorials, ignited by the August clashes in Charlottesville that were spurred by a protest against the pending removal of a Robert E. Lee statue.
In the wake of the clashes, police say, a white supremacist plowed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing a woman.
Mr. Northam and Mr. Gillespie both condemned the white nationalists, neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members that showed up at the rally, and both have said it’s up to localities to decide what to do about memorials on their property.
Still, Mr. Northam says he’d like for them to be relocated, while Mr. Gillespie says they should stay as a part of history.
Mr. Northam also has tacked toward the National Democratic Party on gun control, embracing calls for “commonsense” gun restrictions. He would require background checks for all purchases at gun shows, expanding beyond just licensed dealers, and would reinstate the commonwealth’s former one-handgun-a-month policy. He also would ban high-capacity ammunition magazines and assault weapons.
That’s a change from previous Democratic candidates who had shied away from such proactive gun control stances, and it’s earned Mr. Northam support from Americans for Responsible Solutions and Everytown for Gun Safety.
“The leadership of the Democratic Party has dragged the party into becoming the party of gun control, and Northam is in tune with that,” said Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League. “As the party has drifted, he has drifted with them.”
Mr. Gillespie has been endorsed by the National Rifle Association and has embraced Second Amendment rights, though gun-rights backers said they’re waiting to see how committed he is.
“His heart is in the right place on gun rights,” Mr. Van Cleave said of Mr. Gillespie. “How much of a champion he will be, we will see. He doesn’t have a voting record to go by, but at least his heart is in the right spot.”
Both candidates have said they support restrictions on the “bump stock” device that in effect allowed the Las Vegas shooter to convert his semi-automatic firearms into fully automatic weapons.
The two candidates follow the usual party divide on abortion, with Mr. Northam having played a key role in the state Senate in stopping legislation that called for women to undergo ultrasounds before an abortion.
Mr. Gillespie opposes abortion with exceptions for rape, incest and to save the life of the mother.
Mr. Gillespie also supports legislation that would end state taxpayer funding from being sent to Planned Parenthood — efforts that Mr. McAuliffe has vetoed the last four years — and would bar abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
“For us as reproductive rights activists we couldn’t have asked for a better candidate than Ralph Northam,” said Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia. “With Gillespie he has really has appealed to the fringe fanaticism of his party and that is on multiple issues, but to stand up and outwardly say that you think birth control is a sin and one of your goals is to ban abortion, that is pretty out there.”