Va. candidates punt on ’Skins

Getty Images

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and his Republican opponent, Ed Gillespie, want no part in the dispute over the Washington Redskins’s controversial name.

Both candidates punted on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s ruling that the name is “disparaging” and that it will lose its trademark.

ADVERTISEMENT
Whether or not the football team’s name is racist is a hotly debated issue in Northern Virginia and throughout the commonwealth. Taking a strong stand for or against the name risks alienating otherwise sympathetic voters.

Warner’s office offered nothing new when asked about the ruling, referring to a month-old statement explaining why he didn’t join 50 other Democratic senators in signing a letter calling for the Redskins to change its name.

“Senator Warner believes that it’s not for Congress to dictate what the league does. He believes that over time, team names will change to reflect the times, as happened with the Washington Wizards,” Warner’s office said at the time, referring to the former Washington Bullets.

Gillespie voiced similar ambivalence about the ruling, which is the second time the Patent Office has ruled against the Redskins. The team successfully challenged a nearly identical decision in 1999.

“The Redskins are appealing the ruling, and it will work its way through the courts again. As a senator, Ed will focus on creating jobs, raising take-home pay, holding down health care costs and reducing energy prices, not telling private team owners what they should or shouldn’t call their teams,” Gillespie spokesman Paul Logan said in an email. 

The two candidates came out with similar viewpoints — that it’s not the place of a U.S. senator to weigh in on the private team’s name — while refusing to get embroiled in the controversy over the name itself.

They’re not the first to call this play. In 2013, then-candidate Terry McAuliffe said at a debate he didn’t think “the governor ought to be telling private businesses what they should do about their business.” His Republican opponent, Ken Cuccinelli, then attorney general, said the decision should be “up to them entirely” before adding that “80 years of history with that team is kind of hard to leave behind.”

“Why would a politician want to get themselves in the middle of this thing if they represent Northern Virginia? It’s inflammatory on both sides. Just steer clear of this,” former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) told The Hill. “Not every decision is a political decision. Ask me what Congress has to do with this.”

That sentiment was echoed by Warner’s former senior adviser, Dave “Mudcat” Saunders.

“Hell, let the courts handle it. The Senate has enough to do without getting involved in this,” Saunders said.

The controversy isn’t helpful to either candidate. Warner has a comfortable lead for reelection. If he weighs in, he risks alienating either the more culturally conservative “NASCAR dads” he’s assiduously courted in his campaigns or angering the liberal base in the state. 

Meanwhile, Gillespie could turn off some culturally liberal Northern Virginia voters who might otherwise be open to his fiscally conservative message in the swing state. 

That’s not the approach other Democrats have taken. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has led the charge against the Redskins, attacking owner Dan Snyder for refusing to consider a name change. In late May, most Democratic senators signed a letter urging him to change the name, but not Warner or Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). Signees did include Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who represent the more liberal state where the team actually plays but where many voters are likely Baltimore Ravens fans. 

But Democrats in states with large populations of Native Americans that they need to turn out this fall have been much more vocal. The Native American population is relatively small but is concentrated in a few states with key Senate battles, including Alaska, Montana, Louisiana and North Carolina.

“We should be honoring our nation’s First Peoples, not using racial slurs,” Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) wrote on Facebook following the release of the senators’ letter.

It’s unlikely the Redskins will be a major motivator for voters thousands of miles from the nation’s capital, however.

“Whether there’s any political benefit to some Democrats in some of the races remains to be seen. From Sen. Reid’s perspective, I think he just finds the name out of bounds in this day and age,” former Reid adviser Jim Manley told The Hill. “I’m not so sure it’s going to resonate as a base motivator.”