The official, state-sanctioned removal of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond on Wednesday — politically unthinkable just a few years ago — caused little more than a ripple in Virginia’s governor’s race, with both candidates acknowledging changing time and attitudes.
The statue, which has stood over the former capital of the Confederacy for more than a century, came down after a pair of rulings from the state Supreme Court last week greenlighted its removal.
“The Supreme Court, in fact, has ruled on this and the statue is going to come down and I hope they move it to a battlefield or a museum so we don’t lose the fact that we have a history and we all need to know it,” said GOP gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin in a TV interview last week.
Democratic nominee and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who once defended the preservation of Confederate monuments in 2015, now says the statues have to go.
“These monuments have clearly become flashpoints for hate and division, just like we saw in Charlottesville in 2017, and it’s time they came down,” Mr. McAuliffe said.
Both candidates have largely steered clear of the debate over the fate of controversial historical symbols, an issue that played a key role four years ago in the race between Gov. Ralph Northam and Republican nominee Ed Gillespie.
Statue removals became a flashpoint in the 2017 race after the violent clash in Charlottesville that began when a group of white nationalists organized a rally to protest the takedown of a local statue of Lee.
The issue became more enflamed after former President Trump expressed sympathy for Lee defenders, signaling that there were “some very fine people” on both sides of the protest.
The Charlottesville rally resulted in the death of one protester and injuries to several dozen others after a car rammed into a group protesting against the original demonstration.
Mr. Trump was adamant throughout his presidency that historical statues and monuments should be preserved.
“He was very clear that Confederate monuments should remain up, so because Trump spoke about it, it became a dominant issue in the race,” said Mark Bergman, a Democratic strategist who has served as an advisor to Mr. Northam.
But the idea of preserving symbols of the Old South has steadily lost ground since — especially after nationwide calls for a reckoning on racism in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of a White Minneapolis police officer.
Andrew Pennock, a public policy professor at the University of Virginia, said at least in Virginia, the issue of statues has become muted and is likely to be of little significance in the current governor’s race.
“At the state level, Confederate historical monuments are largely a settled issue in Virginia,” Mr. Pennock said. “It may reemerge as an issue in individual localities, but the issue is no longer actively contested by statewide campaigns.”
Mr. Pennock added that elected officials in Virginia today have “different values” than those of the officials who first erected the statues.
The lack of resistance from Virginia may also reflect a political shift since the last governor’s race, Mr. Bergman said.
“Four years ago, when Ralph Northam said he wanted the statues to come down, at the time it was political heresy to say something like that,” Mr. Bergman said. “But I think Virginia in the last four years has come a long way towards reckoning with its past.”
Mr. McAuliffe and Mr. Youngkin instead have focused largely on education, pocketbook issues and the economy, and the response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The latest poll, which came out on Wednesday, shows the GOP’s Mr. Youngkin slightly leading Mr. McAuliffe, signaling a change from other polls which had the Democrat consistently ahead.
The poll by WPA Intelligence shows Mr. Youngkin carrying 48% support over Mr. McAuliffe‘s 46%.
It was conducted between Aug. 30 and Sept. 2 among 734 likely Virginia voters. The margin of error was +/- 3.6%.
Election Day is Nov. 2.