The lights are on long before dawn at Ed Gillespie’s house on the banks of the Potomac River. In the last days before Virginia chooses its next governor, the Republican candidate is up early. The cars his aides use to shuttle him to campaign stops are already in his driveway.
But on this day less than two weeks before the election, Gillespie will wade into no crowds, face no undecided voters, shake no hands of Virginians except those of high-end donors and his own campaign workers.
He will leave his house in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County only to attend a publicly unannounced fundraiser at the home of the executive in charge of political giving for the billionaire Koch brothers, to speak to a newspaper editorial board, and to visit his volunteers in Fredericksburg.
Gillespie has led something of a stealth campaign this fall, issuing few of the advisories that other campaigns use to let TV stations, newspapers and other media outlets cover their efforts to win votes.
Even as Democrat Ralph Northam’s campaign issues hour-by-hour listings of his appearances, Gillespie, more than any other recent gubernatorial candidate, Republican or Democrat, often avoids reporters, ignores questions, and advertises his whereabouts mainly to invited audiences.
“This is very unusual behavior, but it reflects the nationalization of Virginia politics,” said Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University in Newport News. “The partisan vitriol of national politics has come to Virginia in a big way, and Republicans in particular have decided the media is more likely to be against them, so they will keep their distance from TV anchors, reporters, and traditional media. But they still need to reach the public, so they’re interacting with media in ways they can control — through paid media and social media.”
Gillespie’s approach contrasts sharply with President Trump’s campaign last year, which relied heavily on generating news coverage of his frequent rallies and news conferences.
Gillespie’s campaign spokesman, David Abrams, declined to be interviewed, but in an email, he rejected the notion that the candidate is hard to find. “Just this week,” he wrote, “Ed’s held two press conferences, did seven television and six radio interviews, sat down with four editorial boards, including The Washington Post, and is campaigning today at two open press events with [New Mexico] Gov. Susana Martinez.”
In an effort to learn where Gillespie was campaigning on Wednesday, Washington Post reporters arrived outside his house in the darkness of the early morning and drove along with the cars that left his cul-de-sac.
An Infiniti SUV that bore a Gillespie for Governor bumper sticker and looked like a vehicle he had used at other events turned out to contain a neighbor — a mother driving her pre-teen to school. The main activity in that car was not politicking, but texting.
Another SUV sporting a Gillespie sticker – this one a Chevy Tahoe that had appeared in photos Gillespie supporters had posted on social media – looked more promising as it peeled away from his house. The Tahoe ended up at Gillespie’s campaign office in Old Town Alexandria. But the car carried only an aide with a sheaf of documents — no candidate.
By the time the sun had burned off the morning dew, a Buick Enclave emerged from the Gillespie compound. Three miles up the road, it became evident that the vehicle carried only two women.
Finally, the Tahoe left the house once more. Although the campaign had said nothing about any midday appearances, Vice President Mike Pence’s office had published its daily calendar of his activities, including his attendance at a fundraiser for Gillespie in Oakton. The timing was right; the Tahoe could be Gillespie’s ride to the Pence event.
When the vehicle left Gillespie’s house, it appeared that his aide was driving solo. But when the vehicle arrived, there was the candidate, riding shotgun. Had he hunched down to avoid being seen by nosy reporters — a practice that some Virginia journalists and political operatives have suggested Gillespie deploys?
The campaign isn’t saying.
In Oakton, the Secret Service had the reporters made from jump street. “Are you guys with The Post?” the agent in charge of the security perimeter asked. The fundraiser was for invited guests only — Virginia business leaders and politicians, including former Gov. George Allen — but the agent offered a choice spot on a hill with a perfect vantage for viewing Pence’s motorcade, an impressive 14-car production, led by motorcycle police.
John Whitbeck, chairman of Virginia’s Republican party, said Gillespie told the donors that the Democrats had woken up too late to the closeness of the race and that “Ed’s been doing this a long time and he knows when things are going his way.”
Whitbeck, who would later tweet an 18-second snippet of video from the event, said that Pence told the assembled that he and Trump would be helping Gillespie “in many ways. He said, ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet.’”
Whitbeck said “we are aware how the president is going to participate, in several different ways,” but he isn’t telling. Gillespie has avoided comment on whether Trump will campaign for him.
One of Gillespie’s main challenges — how to appeal to Trump supporters without alienating anti-Trump Republicans and independents whose votes he also needs — also explains his stealth campaigning, Kidd said: “If they were worried about getting embroiled with the controversies of the Trump presidency, the easiest tactic to try is to keep the media at arm’s length and avoid the difficult questions.”
Whitbeck said he couldn’t speak to Gillespie’s unusually quiet campaign. “I don’t get into the calendaring,” he said. “He’s everywhere, all over the state. You can see it on Facebook.”
Indeed, Gillespie’s Facebook page includes photos posted after events this week with Republican volunteers in Charlottesville, McLean, and Alexandria — none of which were announced ahead of time to the public. The campaign did, however, publicize events in northern Virginia with Martinez and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio appearing with Gillespie.
Thirty-nine minutes after the fundraiser began, Gillespie’s voice emerged from the doorway of Kevin and Anne Gentry’s house. And there he was. The candidate bounded down the walkway to the waiting Tahoe, ignoring reporters’ questions. He avoided eye contact, slipped into the SUV, shut the door, and finally looked us square in the face. He flashed a big smile and an energetic wave. And he was gone.