The arrival of hundreds of neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members and other white nationalists in Charlottesville this weekend prompted a round of condemnation from across the political spectrum in Virginia, where state elections are three months away.
The university town’s decision to remove a downtown statute of Confederate general Robert E. Lee fueled the white nationalist backlash, and created a divisive campaign issue up and down the Virginia ballot this year.
This weekend’s clashes in Charlottesville were the most high-profile yet. They cast a greater spotlight on the only competitive governor’s race in the country this year, seen as an early test of politics in the era of President Trump.
The Democratic nominee, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, joined other Virginia Democrats in denouncing white supremacy. He praised Charlottesville for defending its values of “openness, diversity and inclusion” from numerous protests, including a tiki-torch ceremony in May and rally of 30 Klansmen in July.
“White supremacists have descended upon Charlottesville again to evoke a reaction as ugly and violent as their beliefs — just as they did before, I am urging Virginians to deny them the satisfaction,” Northam said in a statement.
He plans to visit Charlottesville on Sunday.
The Charlottesville statue has created an awkward conundrum for GOP gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie, who nearly lost his primary election to a candidate who made defending Confederate statues a central issue of his campaign and welcomed the support of white nationalists. During the primary, Gillespie stressed that he did not support removing the Lee statue (though he believes the issue is a local, not state, matter) after his opponent Corey Stewart ran ads claiming otherwise.
Gillespie, a longtime party operative and former chairman of the Republican National Committee, released a statement Saturday condemning the “events in Charlottesville.”
“Having a right to spew vile hate does not make it right,” Gillespie said. “It is painful to see these ugly events in Charlottesville last night and today. These displays have no place in our Commonwealth, and the mentality on display is rejected by the decent, thoughtful and compassionate fellow Virginians I see every day.”
A spokesman for the Democratic Governors’ Association criticized Gillespie’s response for omitting his support for the Confederate statue “at the center of the Charlottesville march.”
The other governor’s race this year is in New Jersey, where Democratic candidate Phil Murphy is expected to win easily. Murphy called the turmoil in Charlottesville a “sad result of when hate and bigotry are given a wink and nod by the President and those around him.”
Other Republican leaders in Virginia were more direct than Gillespie in labeling the rallies.
Lieutenant governor nominee Jill Vogel, a state senator from Fauquier County, called them a “vile display of racism.” GOP attorney general nominee John Adams described what was unfolding in Charlottesville as “Nazi-ideology on display.” U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock, seen as the most vulnerable Republican member of Congress in Virginia, described the marchers as neo-nazis.
“We condemn the hatred and racism on display today in Charlottesville and note that there is nothing conservative about messages of that nature,” said John Whitbeck, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia. “Virginia Republicans, Democrats and Independents are all unified in rejecting their message.”
Stewart, who plans to challenge U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D) next year after losing to Gillespie in the primary, said he’ll comment later Saturday on the events in Charlottesville. In May, he responded to a smaller gathering of white nationalists in support of the Charlottesville statue by holding a news conference to denounce Democrats for a history of racism in their party.
President Trump on Saturday offered a condemnation in “the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides.”
Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic incumbent who cannot seek consecutive terms under the state constitute, declared a state of emergency over the clashes.
Democratic lieutenant governor nominee Justin Fairfax, who would be the first African American elected statewide since Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, issued a statement calling for unity against “those who want to divide communities.”
“This moment is also a reminder of the need to tone down political rhetoric and the negativity we often see in our current politics,” said Fairfax.
U.S. Rep. Thomas Garrett (R-Va.), who represents Charlottesville in Congress, faced criticism on social media for not weighing in publicly on the reappearance of white nationalists. A photo of him posing with Jason Kessler, the rally’s organizer, widely circulated on a Twitter.
Garrett condemned an earlier white nationalist rally as “un-American” and a spokesman told the Daily Progress newspaper that he met with Kessler to discuss a town hall and unrelated terrorism bill.
Garrett on Saturday tweeted to condemn what he called “despicable escalation of racist rhetoric In Charlottesville.” Later, in an interview with Fox News, he said, “The victims of this racist violence are my constituents … It blows my mind that this many racist bigots actually exist in this country.”
David Weigel contributed to this story.