Why Republicans might actually win the Virginia governor’s race, explained

Democrats worried about the Virginia governor’s race may not have been comforted by an awkward moment during Monday night’s debate.

Democratic nominee Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, when faced with a question about coal during the debate, put forth: “Coal is very important to the economy in southwest Virginia. I understand that. … At the same time, it would move us to cleaner energy and a cleaner environment.”

Polls have showed that the race is surprisingly close, leaving many to wonder if the Republican candidate, former lobbyist Ed Gillespie, could win. Gillespie, though a longtime establishment Republican, has reinvented himself as a Trump-style culture warrior. He has aired ads that tie Northam to the murderous gang MS-13, and attacked him for allegedly trying to bring down Confederate monuments throughout the state.

Democrats only have a handful of competitive races this November into which they can pour their anti-Trump energies. Virginia, many electoral experts say, no longer really appears to be a swing state, having flipped from red to blue in the past three elections.

But the Virginia governor’s race this year is making some on the left queasy as a redux of Election Day 2016. Gillespie has found an opening by flaying Northam over culture war issues in mailers and campaign ads. Northam, meanwhile, has tried to turn the campaign back to pocketbook economic issues and health care — but struggled to craft a message that appeals to the party’s base without alienating the suburban moderates Virginia Democrats have come to depend on.

“You should be very skeptical of anyone claiming Northam is going to run away with this,” says Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia. “Virginia’s voters are whiter, older, and more educated. Only the third favors Northam.”

Fear is creeping in that instead of beginning to beat back the tide of Trumpism and race-baiting dog whistles, Democrats will once again be submerged in it.

Race baiting worked for Trump, but that doesn’t mean it will work for Gillespie

Some Democrats I spoke to for this story thought Northam’s polling numbers might wind up proving just another example of liberal bedwetting. One listed several key reasons to be confident Northam will still pull this out:

  • Virginia’s electorate may still be predominantly white, but it has more college-educated voters than most of the country — a demographic that tends to lean Democratic.
  • Polling suggests overwhelming opposition in Virginia to the GOP attempts to repeal Obamacare — an issue Northam has tried to highlight repeatedly.
  • Former President Barack Obama, who remains popular in the state, is expected to stump for Northam in the coming weeks.
  • Though the polls have recently tightened somewhat, most still show Northam still commanding a lead of more than 5 points.

But even if Northam is safe, the race is exposing some difficult questions for Democrats that their daily outrage about Trump tends to paper over.

Gillespie, for instance, has made much of Northam’s shifting position on Confederate statues. In the wake of the bloody melee sparked by white supremacists in Charlottesville this August, Northam joined current Gov. Terry McAuliffe in arguing that the statues should be moved to museums. But after polling emerged in the state showing that more than half of voters like the statues, Northam backpedaled, and now simply says he wants to work with local officials to figure out what should be done with the monuments.

Gillespie has hammered him over and over for the inconsistency. “Republicans here are pretty unified in opposition to taking down the statues, and Democrats are divided,” said Skelley. “It’s clearly an issue where Republicans here think they have an edge.”

Indeed, Northam appears to believe he’s boxed in — come out too strongly in favor of the monuments and he’ll lose black voters and young liberals he desperately needs. But come out too strongly against them and he’ll alienate the wealthy suburban moderates who polling suggests both like Northam and like the statues.

That’s a tension that seems unlikely to go away or simply be localized to the Virginia race. And it explains why a race that was supposed to be a blowout is suddenly looking like it might be anything but.

Like Hillary Clinton, Northam is struggling to excite the Democratic base without turning off the middle

Lt. Gov. Northam has all the credentials center-left party operatives tend to extol in a candidate. He’s a doctor. He served in the military. He has a moderate voting record — though he’s come out for progressive policies like debt-free college and a $15 minimum wage — and he takes to the campaign trail with a Southern accent and small-town, genteel affect.

This summer, Northam defeated a primary challenger named Tom Perriello, a former Virginia Congress member who billed himself as the left-wing, populist outside alternative to Northam’s establishmentarian form of politics. Perriello was endorsed by progressive icons Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and vowed to ignite a new and younger wave of voters energized by the “resistance.” Though it’s also worth noting Perriello has ties to the Clinton faction of the Democratic Party, including a stint at the Center for American Progress, run by former Clinton staffer Neera Tanden. (The recent tightening of the polls has led some to joke that #PerrielloWouldHaveWon, given his superficially similar position in the race to Sanders.)

But Perriello, despite enthusiasm from the national party, went up against virtually the entire Virginia Democratic establishment. Northam was backed by McAuliffe, the state’s major Democratic donors, and both of the state’s senators — Tim Kaine and Mark Warner. Perriello lost by 12 points.

Northam now has to figure out how to close the deal. But as Sam Stein writes at the Daily Beast, national Democrats are beginning to panic over a lack of enthusiasm about Northam’s prospects. The parallels to the 2016 presidential race seem clear.

Gillespie is trying to make the race about dog-whistle racist attacks

As Northam has struggled to excite his base, his opponent has worked in surprising ways to transform his campaign into a vehicle for Republicans’ anti-immigrant populist wave.

It’s a move few saw coming. Ed Gillespie is a consummate establishment insider; his résumé looks like a textbook on climbing the GOP institutional ladder — press secretary for John Kasich; Republican lobbyist on Capitol Hill with ties to oil companies and Enron; chair of the Republican National Committee; White House counsel to George W. Bush; chair of Republican State Leadership Committee; losing Senate candidate (in 2014, Gillespie came within 1 point of winning a Senate race against Warner).

In an earlier debate against Northam, Gillespie emphasized the danger of rising sea levels and dinged his opponent for wanting to increase the deficit.

“They may as well as have rubbed each other’s backs, it was so civil and so polite,” said Quentin Kidd, a political scientist and Virginia pollster, of the debate. “It was basically an exercise in civility.”

But Gillespie also came out with a TV spot that was quickly compared to George H.W. Bush’s “Willie Horton” ad, infamous for its race-baiting overtones. The ad begins by blasting MS-13 motto’s — “Kill, Rape, Control” — and accuses Northam of allowing the gang to flourish in Virginia because of his support for “sanctuary cities” (even though Virginia has no sanctuary cities). The MS-13 charge is a red herring. The tattooed men shown in the attack ad are from El Salvador, not Virginia. Northam hasn’t voted on meaningful sanctuary city legislation.

“People’s jaws just dropped,” Kidd said about the ad. But it’s proven no outlier. Gillespie’s campaign has sent similar mailers accusing Northam of wanting to remove Confederate monuments throughout the state.

As Alex Shephard and Sarah Jones note in their profile of Gillespie at the New Republic, this appears to be the candidate’s strategy — he gives respectable speeches around the state about taxes and budgets while letting his campaign apparatus dredge up racial animus and fear of immigrants. During one debate, Gillespie even admitted that Virginia has “no sanctuary cities.”

“It’s almost like two different Ed Gillespies,” Kidd says.

Part of the transformation may have to do with the challenge Gillespie faced in the race’s GOP primary from Corey Stewart, a former Trump campaign official and Confederate sympathizer who was kicked off the Trump campaign for attacking the Republican establishment. Stewart, who called Gillespie a “cuckservative” and attacked him for defying Trump, came within 2 points of winning the primary.

“Gillespie has been trying to find some gap to shoot — something to exploit to get back in this race,” Kidd adds. “And based on what I’m guessing is a lot of research and focus grouping, he seems to think there’s a level of anxiety among voters about crimes and gangs.”

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