By Hastings Wyman-
“There’s an anti-Trump mood,” says Carter Phillips, a lawyer and Democratic activist in Hampton, VA; “I think Northam wins this.”
“Ed [Gillespie] is going to win this race,” says Morton Blackwell, the Republican National Committeeman for Virginia since 1988.
That kind of optimism on the part of both parties in Virginia’s off-year gubernatorial contest suggests a hard-fought campaign between Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, and former GOP National Chairman Ed Gillespie. While Northam appears to be in the lead, he has not nailed down a majority, suggesting a close race when the votes are counted on the night of November 7.
Opinion polls show a race that is still undecided with less than two months to go before Election Day. Northam is leading in two of the three most recent polls, and in the third, the two are tied. A Roanoke College Poll released in late August showed Northam with 43% to Gillespie’s 36%.
An August 8 poll of registered voters by Virginia Commonwealth University showed Northam with 42%, Gillespie with 37% and Libertarian Cliff Hydra at 6%. Among minorities, Northam led 61% to 15%; among whites, Gillespie led 42% to 29%. And a July 25 poll by Monmouth University showed the two with 44% each.
Thus, Northam mostly leads Gillespie, but his numbers – in the low to mid 40s – indicate he has not sealed the deal with voters. And Gillespie simply has not moved much beyond the state’s Republican base, scarcely more than a third of the voters.
Northam is also winning the money race. The latest financial reports show that Northam has raised a total of $8,425,000 while Gillespie brought in $6,742,000. As of August 31, Northam had $5.6 million cash-on-hand while Gillespie had $2.6 million. Northam is getting substantial contributions from pro-choice and environmental groups while the Gillespie campaign received major money from the Koch brothers’ PAC.
Former US Rep. Tom Davis (R), a savvy political observer who once chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee, provides a measured view of the race. He notes that Hillary Clinton carried the state by 5 points, indicating a Democratic electorate. “The real problem for Gillespie is Northern Virginia,” says Davis. “It’s the Democrats geographic base. Clinton won Northern Virginia by 345,000 votes. We used to break even not that long ago.”
When asked about the Confederate monuments issue, Davis said, “I don’t know if it will have any salience by Election Day.”
“There’s a stratified electorate that is slightly Democratic,” says Davis, predicting that “It will stay close till the end.” He also notes that President Trump’s negatives are high, that anti-Trump voters are motivated, and that the undecided voters are “decidedly anti-Trump”
However, says Davis, “If the Democrats make a mistake, Gillespie knows how to pounce on it. He’s run statewide before.”
Democratic lawyer Phillips makes a persuasive case for Northam, echoing some of Davis’s points. “Trump is real unpopular,” he says. “It will help Northam a whole lot.” He opines that “Pence cancelled an appearance with Gillespie, probably to help Gillespie by not appearing.”
Phillips also believes Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has done a good job as governor, thus helping Northam, and he praises Northam’s television spots.
In addition, a number of liberal groups that support abortion rights, gun control, and stronger environmental controls are lined up behind Northam. Planned Parenthood is putting $3 million into Virginia this year, a $1 million contribution to Northam and two million dollars for its own field operation to help Democrats. And liberal California billionaire Tom Steyer is donating $1 million dollars to the Northam effort through his super PAC, NextGen America. This is part of an effort, says the Washington Post, “to fuel a Democratic resurgence.”
Republican Blackwell just is as optimistic for Gillespie. “One of the things that’s going to elect Gillespie is that he’s opposed to taking those [Confederate] monuments down.” In the GOP primary, Blackwell says, Gillespie started with a big lead, but hard-line conservative Corey Stewart stressed his opposition to removing Confederate monuments, which seems to have been the reason he confounded the pollsters and came in a close second to Gillespie. Stewart hasn’t endorsed Gillespie, but “he’s giving tacit support,” says Blackwell. “He’s got to. He’s the leading US Senate candidate next year. He doesn’t want the Gillespie people to be mad at him.”
Northam’s position on Confederate monuments is a bit of a straddle; he would leave it to communities to decide what to do with them, but his opinion is that they should come down. For example, when Virginia Military Institute announced it would keep its statue of Stonewall Jackson in place, Northam said, “While I personally think that these statues belong in a museum with appropriate historical context, I respect the decision of the Institute.”
The Gillespie campaign is distributing a leaflet that stresses economic issues, including jobs and tax cuts, while the reverse contrasts the views of Northam and Gillespie on a number of issues, designed to show that Gillespie is indeed the conservative choice. The ten issues discussed highlight some hot-button issues, including abortion, gun rights, and historical monuments. At least three of the ten concern illegal immigrants, but do not call for deporting dreamers who came here illegally as children. Nevertheless, Gillespie, who likes to avoid the extremes, has not made most of these issues a centerpiece of his campaign.
Given Gillespie’s conservative position on most issues, he has energized volunteers from folks who agree with him, such the Right to Life movement, the NRA and other gun rights people, and Right to Work supporters.
Blackwell points out that conservatives tend to turn out more for off-year elections. Moreover, there is a major push being made for Gillespie on college campuses. “This effort is probably the best one ever held in Virginia.” Gillespie will make personal appearances at Virginia colleges and universities.
Nevertheless, all things considered, it’s Northam’s to lose. Stay tuned.