Democrats tried pretty hard to lose the Virginia gubernatorial election. Yet they managed to win anyway, as the current Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam soundly defeated former Republican National Committee chair Ed Gillespie, and by a larger margin than what Hillary Clinton notched in the state last year. It was a blowout.
But once the thrill of victory fades, the sharp internal divisions that surfaced in the final days of the campaign won’t be easily set aside. Every skirmish among Virginia’s Democrats related to the big existential questions that remain about the Democratic Party’s national direction. And the precise way Northam won is unlikely to produce consensus among the squabbling factions.
Before assessing Northam’s tactics, it’s necessary to grasp just how much he was under siege from all sides.
Gillespie was pounding Northam as the candidate who would let illegal immigrant gangs run wild and give voting rights to convicted pedophiles. Meanwhile, the progressive group Democracy for America dropped its support for Northam and called his campaign “disastrous, racist, and voter-turnout-depressing.” Virginia’s only former African-American governor, Democrat Doug Wilder, refused to endorse him. And a Republican ad targeting black Democrats charged that Northam threw his “black lieutenant governor candidate under the bus.”
What did Northam do to attract so much flak? Back in February, he cast a tie-breaking vote in the state Senate against a Republican bill that would have prevented municipalities from becoming “sanctuary cities” that don’t cooperate with federal immigration authorities. And Northam supported Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s extensive record of restoring the voting rights of ex-felons. These stances won him support from advocates of immigrants and racial justice, but compelled Gillespie to take page from President Donald Trump and hit him as soft on crime.
Then, in the home stretch of the campaign, Northam distanced himself from a controversial ad produced by Latino Victory Fund, which depicted a white man driving a pickup truck with a Confederate flag and a Gillespie sticker, chasing children of color through the streets. Northam also flipped on sanctuary cities, claiming that if any Virginia city tried to attain sanctuary status, he would sign a ban into law. And his campaign printed a set of fliers that left off his African-American running mate, Justin Fairfax, because the labor union that requested them broke with Fairfax over his opposition to gas pipelines. Northam appeared to be alienating blacks, Latinos and environmentalists just when he needed them most.
So how did he win? First and foremost, the ticket held together. Negating the “under the bus” claim, Northam and Fairfax campaigned together in the final days, and Fairfax warned Democrats not to get distracted by “petty arguments.” “Do not let them divide us,” he exhorted, “Every time they try, stay on target.” Furthermore, Northam’s primary opponent Tom Perriello, who had been endorsed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, refused to join in the backbiting and worked hard to support the ticket.
Second, Northam’s counter-messaging to Gillespie’s onslaught was highly calibrated to avoid the culture war. In an ad that directly challenged the veracity of Gillespie’s most incendiary attacks, Northam did not respond with a liberal message on immigration or civil rights. He minced no words in calling Gillespie’s attacks “despicable,” but he coupled that with a law-and-order message that stressed his record supporting “longer sentences for gang members and mandatory life sentences for violent sexual predators.”
Northam was eager to tie Gillespie to Trump, who is highly unpopular in the state. But he did so on policy grounds. Instead of accusing Gillespie of bigotry, as the Latino Victory Fund did, Northam’s final attack ad said Gillespie agreed with Trump’s plan to “take money out of Virginia’s public schools … roll back our clear water and clean air protections [and] take health care away from thousands.” Soporific stuff to the political press corps, but apparently quite effective with Virginia voters.
The closest Northam came to referencing Trump’s relentless waging of culture war was in his closing ad, in which Northam obliquely says, “We have a president who is dividing America in a way we’ve never seen before. Here in Virginia we can do better.” But he didn’t explicitly mention immigration or race. He quickly pivoted to jobs, vocational training and health care.
There was little in the Northam campaign that populist Berniecrats would want to emulate (and Senator Sanders never gave his endorsement). Northam previously voted for George W. Bush, touted “fiscal responsibility” and refused to oppose natural gas pipelines. Yet his centrist campaign proved not to be the turnout-depressing disaster some on the left had warned. Meanwhile, up in New Jersey, a former Goldman Sachs executive claimed the governor’s mansion for the Democrats. At minimum, the argument that a red-hot populism is required to win elections took a big hit.
But Northam’s strategy hardly ends the Democratic debates over issue priorities and campaign style—in fact, it kept going at Northam’s victory party, where he was heckled by immigrant advocates chanting “Sanctuary for All.”
Northam disavowed Latino Victory’s bombshell ad as lacking “civility,” and the group pulled it from the air under pressure. Still, it got more attention than any other ad in the campaign, yet in the end, Northam wasn’t hurt by it. And after the returns came in, Adam Jentleson, the rapid-response director for the Center for American Progress Action Fund, defended the ad on Twitter: “[M]aybe Republicans have helped create [a] climate of fear. And maybe saying so isn’t out of bounds.” The president of Latino Victory Fund, Cristóbal J. Alex, took his own victory lap, and suggested more provocative ads are to come. He told Buzzfeed the ad “was designed to raise Latino voters’ awareness of Gillespie’s bigoted campaign tactics, and it accomplished that goal … we threw a jab to the throat and we will continue raising our voices wherever and whenever racism rears its head.”
Of course, it’s quite possible that the combination of tactics proved complementary. An outside group fired the culture war blast, while the candidate managed, however awkwardly, to stay out of the firing line.
And those on Northam’s left may point to other down-ballot victories in Virginia as evidence of what’s ideologically possible, such as the democratic socialist Lee Carter, who beat the Republican state House majority whip, and Danica Roem, the first transgender candidate to win a state legislative seat.
But whatever one’s takeaway is from Tuesday night, there is one conclusion that is indisputable. For Northam to win so decisively, Democrats had to set aside disagreements that risked dividing whites and people of color, moderates and democratic socialists, labor and environmentalists, and show up on Election Day. And they did.
Politico · by BILL SCHER · November 7, 2017