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Until last Tuesday night, Democrats watched the Virginia governor's race with growing dread. Republican candidate Ed Gillespie blanketed the airwaves with ads calling his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, soft on crime. And they seemed to work: Gillespie eliminated Northam's lead in one poll and ran three points ahead in another. But on Election Day, Northam won the "purple" state handily. One important takeaway from this closely watched race? It seems the politics of fear still resonate with some voters – but they won't always prevail.
Virginia voters' repudiation of demagoguery is first and foremost a momentary triumph of civility. But in specifically rejecting the rhetoric Gillespie so ardently pushed, it may also present an opening for legislators nationwide to work toward a fairer, more effective criminal justice system without fear of electoral backlash. They should take it.
By now, President Trump's distortions on crime, violence and "American carnage" have become the stuff of legend. Among other things, he's claimed that the murder rate is at a 47-year high, when it actually hovers around 1965 levels – down 45 percent since 1991. But the facts are beside the point: To Trump, these easily disproven assertions are effective tools to scare the public into accepting his 1990s-era tough-on-crime agenda.
So too with Ed Gillespie, who ran a campaign right out of Trump's playbook. He railed against "sanctuary cities," claiming his opponent "let dangerous illegal immigrants back on the streets." Other ads branded Northam as "weak" on the Central American gang MS-13 or attacked him for helping restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated people, implying it would increase crime. Trump joined the conversation, implying via Twitter that Democrats allowed "high crime" to fester in Virginia. (Gillespie retweeted the claim.) This despite the fact that Virginia has no sanctuary cities, and researchers have repeatedlyrejected any connection between immigration and crime. Moreover, violent crime in the commonwealth is 44 percent below the national average.
Thankfully, Gillespie's fear-mongering fell short. Despite running up wide margins in rural Virginia, his suburban support collapsed. And college-educated voters broke overwhelmingly for Northam, whose nearly nine-point victory was a blowout by contemporary standards. He ran 3.6 points ahead of Hillary Clinton's totals when she won the state in 2016, and 6.3 points ahead of Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic incumbent, in 2013.
This rejection of the politics of fear and resentment comes at a critical juncture.
Had Gillespie's strategy vaulted him into the governorship, it might have poisoned ongoing attempts nationwide to return reason, proportionality and fairness to our criminal justice system. States as diverse as Georgia, New Jersey, and Texas have in recent years reduced their prison populations while preserving public safety. A Gillespie win could've spooked legislators leading such efforts, steering them away from reform and turning the clock back to the 1990s, when lawmakers engaged in a bidding war to see who could be more reflexively punitive.
We saw that dynamic play out at the federal level last year, with the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2016. The bill, spearheaded by Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley and Democratic whip Dick Durbin, aimed to reform outdated federal drug sentencing laws. It gained bipartisan support from their colleagues in Congress only to wither under Trump's rhetoric and his choice of Jeff Sessions, a vocal critic of the bill, as attorney general.
Grassley and Durbin resurrected the legislation last month, reintroducing it in the Senate. Meanwhile, House Reps. Bobby Scott, D-Va., and Jason Lewis, R-Minn., unveiled their own package of reforms which include other mandatory minimums reductions, more money for community policing and greater use of "evidence-based" sentencing alternatives, such as probation. Last Tuesday's outcome gives these legislators room to maneuver.
And Northam's win means that candidates running for Congress or for state office in 2018 may want to think twice about designing a campaign that appeals to the electorate's worst instincts. Moreover, they can safely consider making much-needed criminal justice reform a core pillar of their campaign platform.
To be sure, Gillespie's campaign isn't the last time a politician will try stoking false fears of crime and violence. Republicans – and, yes, some Democrats too – have used that strategy to attract votes since Barry Goldwater in 1964, and candidates will likely continue doing so for the next 50 years.
But Gillespie's defeat is a rebuke to all who would make their name grandstanding about "American carnage." That includes President Trump. The contest showed that the national conversation about crime and punishment can trickle down to the states. That means it can trickle back up, too, and spur much-needed changes at the federal level.