With Democrat Ralph Northam winning Virginia's fiercely competitive governor's race Tuesday night, you would think that would mean a sigh of relief for the Latino group that inserted itself into the last week of the campaign, drawing harsh criticism over an ad that showed a pickup truck with a Confederate flag and a bumper sticker for Republican Ed Gillespie chasing down minority children.
But Latino Victory Fund, which briefly ran the ad early last week, says it will instead double down on its strategy.
The group, which works to elect Democrats, argues that this type of messaging campaign serves to defend the Latino community against ads like one from Gillespie that highlighted the danger posed by MS-13 gang members, which the group said promotes suspicion of Hispanics at large.
Where others saw a mistake from the group and said the ad cast all Gillespie supporters and Republicans as racist, Latino Victory Fund says the outrage just boiled down to crocodile tears from bullies who were finally hit back, echoing what Democratic Party chair Tom Perez said on Meet the Press. Officials for the group said that before the Virginia election results were known they were preparing an op-ed for later this week that would have laid out this strategy regardless of who won the race, BuzzFeed News learned.
"Our ad was an honest reflection of the fears facing communities of color in Virginia and across the country. It was designed to raise Latino voters' awareness of Gillespie’s bigoted campaign tactics, and it accomplished that goal," said Cristóbal J. Alex, Latino Victory Fund president. "Faced with vicious, racist attacks, we usually turn the other cheek or point our finger at the bully. This time we threw a jab to the throat and we will continue raising our voices wherever and whenever racism rears its head."
Much of the reaction to the ad was negative, with the Republican National Committee calling it "disgusting" and saying, "Democrats’ closing argument is that Virginians not supporting their candidate are racist neo-Nazi sympathizers who want to chase down and murder minority children." The Washington Post editorial board said that while Gillespie would have won a race to the bottom because of the MS-13 ads and others depicting Northam as an enabler of child predators, it was "sad that someone who promises to be a governor for all Virginians didn’t call out [Latino Victory] right away."
Northam’s spokesperson told the Washington Post the candidate “would not have run this ad and believes Virginians deserve civility, not escalation.”
That's not how Latino Victory, which works to elect Democratic candidates, sees it, according to sources familiar with the group's strategy. The sources argued the outrage over the ad in conservative media was driven by a desire to drown out the indictments of former Trump campaign officials in Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, which were released on the same day. That argument, though, does not explain the reaction outside of conservative circles like in the Washington Post editorial pages, which also ran editorials last week lamenting Trump's response to the Mueller probe.
The ad itself came together after an eventually spiked poll found that Northam's Latino and black support was soft, sources said. In light of the MS-13 ads, the group came to the determination that nobody was coming to the defense of the Hispanic and immigrant communities and decided to "fight fire with fire."
The original plan was to test the ad on Univision and Telemundo for $30,000 and then make a six-figure ad buy with larger distribution. But that plan was scrapped after the ad blew up on social media and racked up 1 million views within the first day.
Latino Victory Fund saw the strong, critical response fast. Fox News, conservative news sites, Sean Spicer, and White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders all latched on to it, and it wasn't long before the group said its phones were ringing off the hook. The group ultimately had to increase security for its members, following hate mail, harassment, and threats.
"The left is not as tight as they are at quickly mobilizing and coming to each other's mutual aid. We're going to work on that," said a source close to the organization.
While the group feels the ad is a true depiction of how its communities feel in America under Trump, Latino Victory Fund said it made the decision to take down the ad after the terror attack in New York City last Tuesday, which killed eight people and was perpetrated with a truck.
Still, some progressives believed the ad should have stayed up in the homestretch of the gubernatorial campaign.
“I don’t agree with pulling the ad,” LaToia Jones, a former DNC member said. “It spoke to a real fear people are facing given all the hate Trump and his minions are spurting. People forget politics is a full-contact sport. I'm glad someone had the guts to hit back on the GOP's fearmongering. I just hope in the future we won't apologize for hitting back.”
There was also frustration that Northam was so quick to distance himself from the ad.
“They don't appear to be very good at math,” Democratic donor and activist Steve Phillips said before the results came in. “There are 2 million Democratic, anti-Trump voters in Virginia, and you need 1.1 million votes to win the governor's race. Northam's consultants seem more concerned with not alienating Trump voters than inspiring Democratic voters.”
Still, there was a pervading sense even on the left that Latino Victory had picked a poor target with the ad, in effect going after voters as opposed to a candidate.
“I would have threatened to quit if they released that ad,” said one veteran at a similar Democratic group.
A source familiar with Latino Victory’s strategy said the ad was about putting a mirror up to the GOP and forcing Republicans to contend with the full spectrum of what they embrace when they take Trumpian tacts to win elections.
“Gillespie was running ads on monuments in Charlottesville where white supremacists rallied. Don’t tell me that’s not a dog whistle,” the source said.
Adrian Carrasquillo is the White House correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
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Darren Sands is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
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