Democrats See Virginia Governor Race as a Must-Win
Democrats may have focused millions of dollars and mountains of energy on special congressional elections this year -- to no avail -- but keeping their hold on the Virginia governor's mansion next month is arguably more significant to a party aiming to rebuild from the ground up after 2016.
The race to succeed term-limited Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe appears to favor his party as the Nov. 7 contest nears, with Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam leading Republican Ed Gillespie in the polls. McAuliffe's approval rating is above water and the state has a low unemployment rate of just 3.8 percent. But Democrats expect the race to tighten in battleground Virginia, and they can't afford to lose one of just 15 governorships they hold — especially in the only Southern state Hillary Clinton carried last year and where Donald Trump remains unpopular.
Democrats concerned about turnout in an off-year election are looking to their top surrogate to put Northam on voters' radars and to mobilize those unenthused by a relatively generic candidate in an environment where personality often drives politics. Barack Obama will make his first post-presidential campaign appearance on behalf of the nominee in Richmond on Wednesday. The decision to bring the former president, who is likely to draw a large and nostalgic crowd, to Virginia signals how critical this contest is for the party. A loss would give Republicans full control of Old Dominion government and raise questions about Democrats' viability in a political environment seen to be trending in their favor.
Over the course of Obama's presidency, however, Democrats saw their ranks decimated at the state level, with their hold on governorships cut in half. The party has control of both the executive mansion and legislatures in only six states, compared to 25 for Republicans. Since the 2016 election, they have been eyeing this year’s gubernatorial contests as a way to expand their reach, cultivate younger talent, and have an impact on key decisions such as the redrawing congressional district lines at the decade’s end. The party appears poised to pick up one in New Jersey next month, where unpopular Gov. Chris Christie is term-limited. And they sense opportunities in some of the 17 governorships Republicans will be defending next year.
But Virginia is often seen as something of a harbinger, however imperfect, of the political climate to come. Thus, Democrats are pulling out all the stops.
Former Vice President Joe Biden was dispatched to the state over the weekend to underscore the stakes. During small gathering of activists and business leaders in Northern Virginia -- a quickly diversifying and densely populated area outside the Washington Beltway where Democratic candidates need to run up their margins -- Biden made the case.
“The only hope for leadership we have is at the state level,” Biden said in Reston. A win, he said, would "give people hope we are not falling into this know-nothing pit."
Virginia was key to the Democrats' winning coalition at the presidential level in 2008 and 2012. When Obama carried the state in ’08, he became the first Democrat to do so in over four decades. The commonwealth also served as one of the few bright-spot battlegrounds for Hillary Clinton, who carried it last year by five percentage points, outperforming her national numbers. But African-American turnout dropped slightly in 2016, a factor that will be critical for Northam, a former pediatrician who served in the Army as a physician. Obama's appearance in Richmond will be aimed at this key constituency as well as young voters.
"One concern that is kind of hard to be able to analyze is: Where is African-American turnout for Democrats? Barack Obama becomes a very nice surrogate ... where [attracting] those extra few votes really could count," says Geoffrey Skelley, an elections analyst at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
Northern Virginia, Skelley adds, "is perhaps the most critical part to the entire ballgame for Democrats. If turnout [there] lags in some way, that could be game-over for Democrats.”
Northam defeated his more progressive primary opponent, former Rep. Tom Perriello, in June by roughly 10 points. Perriello, who lost his seat in the 2010 Republican wave, had garnered support from several former Obama staffers and supporters. His backers had argued he could better activate grassroots energy in the general election. But one element working now in Northam's favor is President Trump's unpopularity in the state.
A recent survey by the Wason Center for Public Policy at Virginia's Christopher Newport University found that approximately 40 percent of voters say Trump is a factor in their choice for governor this year. And the president appears to be motivating Democrats more than Republicans. Fifty-one percent of Northam supporters said Trump figures into their decision while 72 percent of Gillespie backers say the president isn't a factor. Roughly a third of voters said they intend to send a message of disapproval to Trump and Republicans in Congress.
"Virginia is one of these states that, no matter what the polls say, it tightens at the end," says Don Mark, a Democratic strategist who served as political director for Perriello's gubernatorial run and Obama's 2012 re-election campaign in Virginia. (Mark also notes that several competitive House of Delegates races could help turnout.)
The state’s dynamics help explain the way in which Gillespie is walking a tightrope regarding Trump. In many respects, the GOP nominee represents the so-called D.C. swamp that Trump and his supporters have railed against. He is a veteran of the George W. Bush administration, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and a longtime party consultant with deep establishment ties. And while he helped Newt Gingrich fashion the party’s “Contract With America” that helped to usher in a Republican House majority in 1994, he is often associated with the establishment wing of the party. But this year's governor's race has altered his course.
Gillespie survived the June primary against controversial candidate Corey Stewart, who had aligned himself with Trump, by a just one percentage point. As the nominee, Gillespie has been careful not to embrace the president fully but not to distance himself either. When Trump issued an endorsement via Twitter, Gillespie danced around the subject.
"I did not request a tweet, and I didn’t know a tweet was coming. It came as a surprise to me," Gillespie told the Washington Post at the time. "I didn’t ask him not to endorse. I assumed that given that I’m the Republican nominee and he’s the Republican president, that he was endorsing me.”
It is unclear at this point whether Trump plans to stump for Gillespie. But the Republican candidate welcomed Vice President Mike Pence to the southwestern part of the state on Saturday, the same day Biden appeared in the north.
“The president sent me here to ask the people of Virginia to do everything in your power to elect Ed Gillespie as your next governor of Virginia,” Pence said during a rally in Abington.
Though not present, Trump voiced his support through Twitter. "The Democrats in the Southwest part of Virginia have been abandoned by their Party. Republican Ed Gillespie will never let you down!" he wrote on Saturday.
Gillespie has tapped into cultural currents in the Virginia and issues important to Trump voters. His campaign is running an ad, for example, highlighting Northam's support for sanctuary cities and tying it to MS-13 gang activity.
“Ralph Northam, who is running for Governor of Virginia, is fighting for the violent MS-13 killer gangs & sanctuary cities. Vote Ed Gillespie!” Trump tweeted.
The issue of Confederate monuments, which spurred public debate after the racially charged violence in Charlottesville in August, has also made its way into the race. Gillespie signed a petition that opposes the removal of such statues, and has accused Northam of wanting to take them down. Northam has said localities should decide. During one of their candidate debates, however, he suggested the statues should be moved to a museum.
The issue could mobilize Republican base voters. According to the Wason Center poll, 54 percent of voters in Virginia oppose the removal of Confederate monuments. Among Northam supporters, 62 support removal. Among Gillespie supporters, 86 percent oppose taking them down.
While the Virginia election will serve as an important test of themes and party direction, analysts warn against extrapolating too much from the results. Past outcomes have provided mixed signals nationally. In 2009, Republican Bob McDonnell won the governor's race and his party took back control of the U.S. House the following year. But in 2013, McAuliffe won and Democrats still lost the U.S. Senate in 2014.