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A GOP Virginia lawmaker on why he sees a resistance wave coming in 2018


A conversation with Rep. Tom Garrett: “Democrats have rightly determined that separating us turns out voters.”

Republicans unfazed by Democrats’ landslide victories in the Tuesday elections are taking away entirely the wrong lesson, says one reflective Virginia Republican lawmaker.

“Look at the numbers in Virginia,” says Rep. Tom Garrett, who is among the House’s archconservatives in the Freedom Caucus and whose district covers Charlottesville and the surrounding area.

“You have a candidate running for governor, who got more votes than the guy in the governor’s mansion, who got beat soundly — so that’s something going on,” Garrett told me of Republican Ed Gillespie’s near 9-point loss to Democrat Ralph Northam. He says those numbers signal an “energy” in the Democratic base that should not be ignored.

Leading up to Election Day, far-right figures in the Republican Party, like former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, said Gillespie’s campaign — which adopted many of the “law and order” and race-baiting culture war narratives President Donald Trump has been pushing — would be proof that Trumpism can exist without Trump.

Garrett sits at an interesting cross section of this debate.

In a year when neo-Nazis and white nationalists descended on his district and the president has waged a war on African-American NFL players taking a stand against police brutality, Gillespie’s tactics were largely seen as a test of both Trump’s base and the Democratic resistance. The resistance won this round.

Garrett calls this moment the Democrats’ “Tea Party movement,” and says that “when you invoke fear to drive behavior, you will reap the whirlwind of what you sow.” But he isn’t talking about Republicans, Gillespie, or Trump’s messaging in the latter. He’s talking about Democrats.

“The tragedy is that Democrats have rightly determined that separating us turns out voters,” Garrett said. “That fear is a great motivator.”

I sat down with Garrett the day after the Virginia governor’s race to talk about the election, the culture war at the center of the campaigns, and what this all means for the Republican Party going forward. Our interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Why Tuesday night matters for 2018

Ralph Northam gives thumbs-up sign
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Gov.-elect Ralph Northam (R) and Lt. Gov.-elect Justin Fairfax, both Democrats, greet supporters at an election night rally in Fairfax, Virginia.

Tara Golshan

I wanted to see what your message was coming out of [Tuesday] night.

Tom Garrett

Well, anybody who says that Ed Gillespie failed to turn out the base can’t read. Ed Gillespie turned out more votes than Terry McAuliffe did, who’s the sitting governor. What we saw last night was the engagement of a massive bloc of new voters by the Democrats. If you look at the turnout numbers — raw totals — of the last governor’s race versus this one, you’ll see there was something like 300,000 new voters, and they all went one way. The big story in Virginia, which I think is underreported, isn’t the governor’s race. It’s the House of Delegates [where Democrats flipped at least 15 seats].

Tara Golshan

Right, that’s what was shocking to me —

Tom Garrett

Right, every Republican that lost, and there might be an exception but I haven’t found it yet, got more votes than they did in 2013 in the last governor’s race. So they turned out more voters, [but] they didn’t turn out as many new voters as the Democrats did. I think it’s an energy thing, and you can impute that to whatever you want.

But you can see an easy parallel — and that’s 2009 with the Tea Party movement. Having said that, I think the formula for the Republican Party going forward has to be focused on individual liberty.

We will lose elections as long as we are concerned with who is in the bedroom with whom — so long as there is not a child involved, it’s not in the purview of the government. We will lose elections as long as we oppose whether a doctor should be able to counsel their patient on whether marijuana might be a viable option for their digestive intolerance to chemotherapy or chronic pain management or epileptic seizures. We need to empower individuals, as the ultimate minority is the individual.

And if we take the liberty message to voters — and I think young voters in particular — I think we will see the numbers flip. But as long as we stick to the right-leaning version of a big-government paradigm, watch this continue for four or eight years.

Tara Golshan

Bannon told the New York Times that Gillespie was Trumpian without being Trump, and if he won it would be a path forward for Trumpian candidates without being Trump. Is that how you saw his campaign?

Tom Garrett

No. I think Ed Gillespie blocked and tackled the fundamentals well.

Tara Golshan

So it wasn’t that he was picking up on these same issues that Trump has been pushing on — as far as immigration goes, [Confederate] statues?

Tom Garrett

Candidly, I don’t think he trod any new ground. Having said that, they ran a good race. If you are running for governor, and someone tells you the day before the election that you will get more votes than the person who is in the governor’s mansion, then you probably think you are going to win. But what happened was, look at how many people voted in 2013 as opposed to 2017. It’s a delta in turnout. But the argument that the Trump voters didn’t show up isn’t true. Every delegate that lost got more votes than the last governor’s cycle. That is about energy. Again, the paradigm that exists is the Tea Party movement.

Tara Golshan

Saying that the paradigm for this is the Tea Party movement — that was something that swept the midterm elections. Is that a concern for you? That this might not be just representative of Virginia, but it could be something coming next year?

Tom Garrett

Yeah.

Tara Golshan

Well, a lot of your Republicans colleagues —

Tom Garrett

I have a character flaw — and my character flaw is that I tend to tell the truth.

Tara Golshan

A lot of Republicans are saying they don’t feel that way.

Tom Garrett

Well, they should look at the numbers in Virginia. Again, you have a candidate running for governor who got more votes than the guy in the governor’s mansion, who got beat soundly, so that’s something going on.

Tara Golshan

So it’s not just a “Virginia is a blue state now” thing. There’s a wave?

Tom Garrett

When you go from 2.2 to 2.6 million over the course of one governor’s cycle, there is something going on.

On culture wars and campaigning on fear

Violent Clashes Erupt at 'Unite The Right' Rally In Charlottesville
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
White nationalists, neo-Nazis, and members of the alt-right march down East Market Street toward Emancipation Park during the “Unite the Right rally” August 12, 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Tom Garrett

[Republicans] really fail at outreach. Now, to be fair, it’s a lot easier to do outreach to a minority community if you are a minority. I’m going to be a middle-aged white guy until the cows come home — and I can’t change that.

I always found it fascinating that if you are a woman or a person of color and a Republican, you immediately become a target. [Democrats] must destroy conservative women and people of color. Democrats have to because it defies their narrative, and that’s tragic. It’s preferable as an American that we can’t stereotype people based on what they look like — that the individual is the arbiter of the values of the individual. Collectivism is inherently un-American. We should be interested in bestowing the benefits of liberty on the entire country, but in order to push the narrative, women conservatives, conservatives of color, become targets. You can’t argue that.

Tara Golshan

Do you think that the current climate of the Republican Party, or even Gillespie’s campaign — or Trump’s — is trying to push away that narrative? Your district covers Charlottesville; that scared people of color. The Confederate statue debate, that scares people of color. The NFL —

Tom Garrett

Well, it scares people of color, yes, because of ads like the Latino Victory Fund ad that shows a guy in the pickup truck with a Confederate flag trying to run down children.

Tara Golshan

Well, what about the actual person that ran down someone in the [Charlottesville] protest? Or when the president says there were problems on both sides?

Tom Garrett

Oh, look, the right message then and now is that we have far more that binds us together than separates us. The tragedy is that Democrats have rightly determined that separating us turns out voters, that fear is a great motivator.

Tara Golshan

You don’t think Trump picked up on that one either?

Tom Garrett

Generally, I tend to sympathize with the bulk of the president’s agenda, but I think his messaging is broken. If you go back and look at what he said the day of the Boston events, which were one week to the day after the Charlottesville events, he hit the right chord: that founders in the preamble suggested a more perfect union, not a perfect union, which acknowledges that perfection is unattainable.

Jefferson was a slave owner, but he was the first person to expand the public concept that all people are equal. We know a flawed person gave us a nearly flawless idea. And then 53 years ago in August, Dr. [Martin Luther] King said we should judge a person on their character, not the color of their skin. What that is is the inexorable march toward equality of opportunity. And we are not there yet. That should be the goal.

Now, if you pin one group against another, you’re moving backward. The resentment of an individual based on what they look like is an inherently un-American.

What scares people turns people out to vote. If you analyze human behavior, there is no stronger motivator than fear. But when you invoke fear to drive behavior, you will reap the whirlwind of what you sow. And I think that is dangerous and antithetical to who we are as a nation.

It’s a tactic. It’s working. How many more Alexandrias [where a gunman took aim at Congress members] will there be? How many more assaults on Rand Paul-type events will there be? If the former vice president of the United States [Joe Biden] says, and I quote, “They want to put you all back in chains,” if the Democratic candidate for vice president [Tim Kaine] says we must fight them in the streets and then his son is arrested for fighting in the streets — so clearly the hyperbole excuse goes out the window. If the DNC chair, Tom Perez, says Republicans don’t give a shit about people. If Alan Grayson says the Republican health care plan is to die quickly. If Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand invoke F-laced tirades to describe people that are ideologically different to them — then understand it will be a very rip in the fabric of who we are.

I should be able to sit at the table amicably and dine with someone who is diametrically opposed to me on issues like health care and the federal government therein. But that world is dying because people are killing it in the name of winning elections — and it’s scary.

Tara Golshan

And you only see that on the Democratic side?

Tom Garrett

It happens both ways. But I would rail against it both ways. I disagreed with the vast bulk of what President Obama advanced, but [I] wouldn’t say he was trying to destroy America. I think that kind of hyperbolic overstatement — let’s attack on issues. If you think sanctuary cities are bad policy, then say sanctuary cities are bad policy, without any statement that invokes one’s nation of origin. Who cares?

But anyone who would suggest that being opposed to sanctuary cities is racist is apparently incapable of peeling back the onion far enough to understand that you are trying to serve Americans by creating circumstances [that are] good for Americans. That’s the shot below the belt, and it’s reflexive now, which is tragic.

How this impacts tax reform and the Republican agenda in the coming year

Tara Golshan

Do you see these Democratic wins more as a reflection of what is happening on Capitol Hill, not what the Republican Party was campaigning on?

Tom Garrett

Well, the first thought that I had was that the Republican Party was disenchanted by promises made and not kept.

Tara Golshan

So Obamacare repeal, for example.

Tom Garrett

Sure. But when I looked at the numbers, Gillespie got beaten pretty soundly, but he actually ran a pretty good race. He got more votes than the current governor in the governor’s mansion. So the only way to explain that is the 300,000-plus new voters, so running a good, mechanically sound race is great, but it’s a consolation prize until you can engage people with new ideas.

What I have been a champion of since being in the state House is getting the government out of people’s personal lives. Everything we do should be toward expanding the freedom of the individual to make decisions for themselves, and if we take that message, we’ll take this message and turn this around. But if we don’t, again, Ed Gillespie ran a good race. He literally has received more votes than the current occupant of the governor’s mansion, and he got beat soundly. That’s an energy difference. How do you counter an energy difference? With fresh, new, bold ideas.

Tara Golshan

Is the tax reform bill enough of a new, fresh, bold idea?

Tom Garrett

Well, there is no way you can argue with a straight face that the tax reform bill doesn’t put more money in the hands of working Americans. There is no way. In fact, Sen. [Chuck] Schumer said there is a chance in 2023 that middle-class taxes would go up, which is an acknowledgement that in the interim they go down. Memo to Chuck Schumer: We have six years to address that.

Tara Golshan

I think the [Joint Committee on Taxation] said that about a quarter of Americans would see their taxes go up over 10 years.

Tom Garrett

Which, given that Congress will continue to meet, I think we can handle fixing that. If that’s the biggest argument they have, it’s tantamount to the mission that we are cutting taxes. “Yes, you are cutting taxes, but they might go up” isn’t a very good argument, so anything that is putting money in people’s pockets empowers people. Am I in love with this bill? Do I think it’s the best thing since sliced bread? Have I even committed to vote “yes” on it? No.

Tara Golshan

I’ve been talking to a lot of Republican and Democratic strategists on how they see this growing narrative of a split between the Flake, Corker, Murkowski push in the Republican Party and the Roy Moore/Kelli Ward wing. There’s a separation on how to message in the Republican Party — I’m curious how you understand that divide.

Tom Garrett

I’m disappointed in the president and in the Flake, Murkowski, McCain, Corker factions, and here’s why: We were all elected to serve the American people. I am convinced with every fiber of my being that there are “no” votes on bills because of an animus toward the person in the White House. I have no doubt people vote “no” because they don’t want to see the guy in the White House accomplish things, because of who he is. That’s pathetic. It’s an abdication of your responsibility. If a person I do not like has an idea that I believe is good, I will support the idea. And to air the dirty laundry and to have the Twitter back-and-forth is beneath the dignity of every office that has been aforementioned.



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