ARLINGTON, Va. — As a few hundred Democrats waited for New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker to arrive at their rally here for Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam on Wednesday night, organizers brought speaker after speaker to the front to fill time.
The unscripted comments from some provided a window into what Democrats are really thinking less than a week before voters choose the state’s next governor.
“While I feel good about everything we have collectively done to this point, I’m not comfortable, and neither can you be,” said Christian Dorsey, a member of the Arlington County board.
Dorsey later told Yahoo News that he is concerned about a lack of enthusiasm for Northam, the Democratic nominee for governor, who has been put on the defensive in recent days and weeks by Republican Ed Gillespie’s aggressive and unabashed appeal to cultural hot-button issues that connect with conservative voters loyal to President Trump.
“It appears that the Gillespie campaign is trying to make this more of a cultural battle, and I’m seeing that that’s not disqualifying him. He’s seeming to get a little bit of momentum there,” Dorsey said. “And the enthusiasm that I’d love to see for Northam … is just not there at the level that I want to see.”
He clarified that the enthusiasm gap was most pronounced among racial minorities, and expressed disappointment that Latinos didn’t seem outraged by an anti-gang ad from Gillespie and that black voters didn’t seem motivated by the presence of an African-American candidate, Justin Fairfax, as Northam’s running mate.
“I actually thought that the MS-13 garbage that the Gillespie campaign is doing would have really activated the Latino community. It hasn’t. I thought that Justin Fairfax would serve to really get the African-American community to take a good look at Ralph Northam. That hasn’t really happened the way I would have expected,” Dorsey said.
As Dorsey spoke, the Gillespie campaign was aggressively pushing a statement to reporters over email about comments by Northam earlier in the day on sanctuary cities. Virginia does not actually have any localities that refuse to enforce immigration law, but Gillespie has run TV ads which accuse Northam of voting to “let dangerous illegal immigrants back on the street.”
The ad is misleading at best. Northam did cast a vote in the state senate against a Republican bill that would have prohibited sanctuary cities, which offer protection to undocumented aliens, and he boasted of it when he was chasing liberal votes in the Democratic primary. But Virginia doesn’t actually have any sanctuary cities, so the issue is basically moot. As lieutenant governor, Northam only got to cast a vote in the event of a tie; Republicans, who had a narrow majority in the chamber, “played political games with the vote on the floor,” as the Virginian-Pilot put it, by engineering a tie to force him to take a stand. The bill subsequently passed on a second vote but was vetoed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe and never became law.
Now Northam has changed his position; on Wednesday he said that he would sign such a bill banning sanctuary cities if he were elected. “If that bill comes to my desk … I sure will,” Northam told a Norfolk TV station. “I’ve always been opposed to sanctuary cities.” Northam’s campaign says he voted the way he did because he has opposed preemptive bans.
It’s not the only issue on which Northam has moved to the center after initially taking a more liberal position. After the Charlottesville terrorist attack by a white supremacist in August that killed a 32-year-old woman, Northam said he believed most or all Confederate statues should be moved to museums and away from public spaces of honor.
But polling showed majorities of Virginians view moving the statues to museums as erasing history, which they oppose. McAuliffe softened his stance on the issue. The Republican Party of Virginia used its official Twitter account to say that Northam, whose ancestors owned slaves, had “turned his back on his own family’s heritage.” And Northam has gone back to emphasizing local autonomy over the monuments, noting that it’s still his personal position that they should be moved.
It’s a jarring turn of events in a state that has voted for the Democratic nominee for president the last three election cycles. Many thought the commonwealth would be a sure bet to elect a Democrat this fall to signal its disapproval of the Trump presidency.
But that expectation from national observers overlooked the fact that when Virginia elects governors, the pool of voters is much smaller than it is during a presidential year. (New Jersey is the only other state holding statewide elections for governor and other offices next week.) There is much less awareness of this race. And Democratic-leaning voters turn out in smaller numbers in nonpresidential cycles.
Northam’s campaign believes he will have the edge if turnout matches the 2013 results, when 2.2 million Virginians went to the polls and gave McAuliffe a narrow victory over right-wing firebrand Ken Cuccinelli. But that was a record-high turnout for the state, and many Democrats are nervous it won’t be replicated.
In Northam’s favor, Democrats shattered turnout records for the primary in June. A total of 540,000 people voted in the Democratic primary, a huge increase from 319,000 in the last contested primary, in 2009.
Northam spokesman David Turner rejected the criticism that Northam’s soft-spoken, low-key style was failing to win voters over. “People said that in the primary too and we won by 12,” Turner said.
Still, what’s noteworthy is that even if Gillespie has run racially charged TV ads to win over Trump voters in a way that is reminiscent of how Jimmy Carter appealed to George Wallace voters in Georgia half a century ago, he has a message, and he has seized the initiative in the closing weeks of the race.
Northam, meanwhile, has relied mostly on a biographical appeal and an expectation that simply opposing Trump will be sufficient.
“The fundamental contrast on a personal level between the two of them is very important and plays very much to Ralph’s advantage,” said Northam pollster Geoff Garin back in mid-September. “The fact that Ralph is both … an army doctor and a pediatric neurologist who was volunteer director of a children’s hospice is very compelling and compares exceedingly well to somebody who’s background is as a Washington, D.C., corporate lobbyist.”
But Democratic activist Brendan Lilly wrote a week after that debate that the Virginia race was “an impending disaster.”
“The ‘Hey, I’m a doctor and a nice guy message’ is weak at best, and being completely drowned out by a wave of Gillespie media buys that effectively attack Northam’s credibility and experience,” Lilly wrote. “It appears Northam campaign is basically borrowing a page from Hillary in the blandness of narrative. … Unfortunately, Gillespie is three steps ahead [with] attack ads that effectively knock down the core of Northam’s outreach.”
Gillespie began running negative ads against Northam before the Sept. 20 debate in northern Virginia, but they were only a preview of what was to come. And in that debate, Gillespie and Northam conducted a high-minded, civil exchange with few personal barbs or sparks. The debate created a widespread perception that the race was a ho-hum, sleepy affair that provided cover for Gillespie’s next move.
The next day, Gillespie’s campaign quietly began running a different ad blaming Northam for creating the non-existent sanctuary cities. This ad, and another released a week later, turned up the fright factor by a big margin. One showed a photo — taken inside a prison in El Salvador — of heavily tattooed gang members with the words, “Kill, Rape, Control” flashing on the screen in big letters.
In early October, Gillespie released two other TV ads that dispensed with any pretense of nuance on Confederate monuments — he had acknowledged in debates that Virginia was often “on the wrong side of history” — and simply stated that he wanted the monuments to stay up and Northam wanted them down.
In response to Gillespie’s MS-13 ads, and because Democrats are concerned that Northam was not resonating with Latino voters, an outside group called the Latino Victory Fund released an online ad Monday that portrayed a white man driving a pickup truck with a Gillespie sticker on it, flying the Confederate flag, and chasing a group of Latino children through the streets of a suburban neighborhood. The ad showed the children waking up from a bad dream at the end.
LVF President Cristobal Alex said in an email that the ad “portrayed the real-life concerns of communities of color in an increasingly hostile political and social environment.”
“We wanted to send the message that, by refusing to disavow white supremacists and racist symbols, Gillespie made his campaign a haven for hate,” Alex said.
Republicans cried foul, howling that the ad had “branded at least half of [Virginia]’s population bigots.”
The LVF has said that Gillespie has “embraced racism and xenophobia.” But when I asked them if they intended their ad to communicate that all Gillespie supporters are racists and bigots, they responded with two words: “Definitely not.”
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