Ed Gillespie has been deeply involved in Republican politics for decades, but the same can’t be said for all of his supporters, even some of the most passionate ones. As Gillespie makes his second attempt to attain public office in Virginia, this time the governorship, his campaign has attracted Virginians who in the past haven’t paid close attention to elections, as well as many who wouldn’t be expected to support a Republican at all.
“I’ve never been involved politics or really helped any candidate before,” says Lou Cironi, a real-estate broker who lives in Hamilton, a small town in Northern Virginia’s Loudoun County. “Neighbors around me have been gung-ho about past elections, but I was always just observing.”
“My youngest is a senior at Virginia Tech, and my other two children are 22 and 24,” he explains to National Review Online. “So I care about keeping quality jobs here in Virginia, but they don’t seem to be there like they used to be. My question was, who has a long-term plan to fix our economy?”
After realizing that Virginia’s current administration — headed by Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe and lieutenant governor Ralph Northam, who is challenging Gillespie in this race — planned to increase government spending, Cironi decided that Gillespie had the answers he was looking for.
He met Gillespie for the first time a few weeks after beginning to volunteer, and he relates an anecdote from the event that sums up why he decided to put so much effort into helping the Republican candidate get elected:
The pastor from my church happened to be there, and he knew Ed from way, way back. He told me, “I knew Ed many years ago, long before he was popular, but it’s the same guy standing up there on stage today that he was back then.”
Cironi was raised in a large Italian family that always supported the Democratic party. But although he became a Republican in the 1980s, attracted to the party by Ronald Reagan, he remained fairly apolitical until this election. “Ed reminds me a lot of a young Ronald Reagan,” he says.
Just over 100 miles away in Richmond, Jerry Lee is another Virginian who was surprised to find himself supporting Gillespie. For most of his life, Lee never would have expected to be introducing a Republican candidate at a campaign event one day. But he recently did just that, telling the crowd:
I am a returning citizen. I spent 23 years in prison. I finally got my rights back and will be voting for the first time in this election, but [Ed] was supporting me when I didn’t have my rights back. He gave me a fair chance as a man when I couldn’t even vote.
Lee’s support for Gillespie is particularly notable given that the Left has attacked the candidate for his stance on restoring felons’ rights. Gillespie has criticized the McAuliffe-Northam administration for automatically restoring rights to felons and making it easier for many of them to obtain firearms again, even in cases when they weren’t truly reformed.
But if Jerry Lee is any indication, Gillespie’s desire to revert to a more conservative, public-safety policy hasn’t necessarily tarnished his support among former felons. In part, that’s surely because of Lee’s personal encounters with Gillespie, which led him to believe that the Republican truly cared about him despite his criminal past. When introducing the candidate, Lee relates three stories of the times he encountered Gillespie — stories that might not stick in the mind of most people but that have stayed with him.
After Lee was released from prison, he began some projects to help restore the urban communities in Richmond, and it was there that he ran into the Republican candidate. He remembers the first time that they met because he was impressed by the way Gillespie pulled out a notepad and began taking notes as they spoke:
To me, that’s a big deal because I never thought that I was going to have an impact on anybody’s life after doing what I did for 23 years, in prison. He wrote it all down.
Lee describe their next encounter, when Gillespie attended an event for Lee’s Give Back to Community initiative.
I had two mothers [there]. One had lost one child to the opioid crisis, and the other had lost two children to the opioid crisis. And as I was telling their story, out of the corner of my eye, I could see Mr. Gillespie put his pad down and wipe a tear from his eye. That’s when I started to really, really pay attention to the character of this man.
Lee’s initial impressions of the Republican candidate were confirmed when he encountered Gillespie for a third time, at a meet-and-greet: “As soon as he sees me, he lit up, and he remembered my name.” Gillespie told Lee how much he valued the testimonies of those two bereaved mothers and how it had affected his approach to the opioid crisis in Virginia.
“That’s when I knew this was a great guy, because I’m a spiritual man, and I believe in the number three,” Jerry says. “Three times in a row I met this man, and his character shined, and I felt like that was God telling me, ‘This is a good guy. This is a very good guy.’”
They’ve seen firsthand the way he treats everyone, voters and nonvoters alike, even when the cameras are off.
Though their stories are unique, both Lee and Cironi emphasized their admiration for Gillespie’s character. To be sure, they embrace his political goals, but more important, they’ve seen firsthand the way he treats everyone, voters and nonvoters alike, even when the cameras are off.
“I’ve seen him behind the scenes, in preparation, talking to people,” Cironi says. “He goes out of his way to connect with people, and not just for the vote. He sincerely means it.”
Even though he never expected to be so invested in politics, Cironi says that after the election he’ll miss spending so much time working on the campaign. His wife, too, was taken by surprise at his involvement, he says:
My wife asked me, “What do you see in this man, Lou, that you’re spending all this extra time? You don’t have a lot of extra time.” I say this in all sincerity to you. I’m very proud that I’ve even been part of this. And I wanted to volunteer even more than I have, because I really believe in this man.
Cironi also believes that, with the election just one day away, he is far from alone in having such strong faith in Gillespie: “I’m one of the many.”
Reaching detached or unlikely voters such as Lou Cironi and Jerry Lee, and inspiring them to do more than simply turn up at their polling places on Election Day, is an essential part of putting together a winning coalition, especially in swing states such as Virginia. Gillespie’s ability to do so is a testament to his broad appeal and his nontraditional playbook.
This race was expected to be an easy win for the Democrats, but in recent weeks Gillespie has turned that forecast on its head. Perhaps most significantly, his campaign has shown an ability to unite the state’s Republicans, whatever their view on Trump, while Virginia’s Democrats appear to be in some disarray. By crafting a careful yet substantive message and still persuading new voters, Gillespie has managed to make this an exceedingly tight race. The nation is watching.
— Alexandra DeSanctis is William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute.