By Hastings Wyman –
In two weeks, on Nov. 7, voters in Virginia will go to the polls in an off-year to elect their next governor. This will be the first major test of the political power of the Trump presidency. The election is also important because the campaigns exemplify the latest trend in political strategy. Both parties are making a major pitch to the voters that are sympathetic to them, ignoring independents and undecideds. It’s all about the base.
“Independents, who are about one-third of the electorate, are ignored. Now elections seem to be about turning out the base,” says Mark Rozell, Dean of the Schar School of Politics at George Mason University.
The television spots of the two candidates bear this out. The issue that predominates in Democrat Ralph Northam’s ads in Northern Virginia tout the candidate’s pro-choice stand on abortion and quotes Republican Ed Gillespie saying he would like to see abortion ended.
Northam’s pro-choice spots are a major focus, says Rozell, because “abortion remains a strong issue in Northern Virginia. It is a marker for social liberals… Democrats are counting on a strong turnout in the urban corridor,” where Hillary Clinton ran strong in 2016.
Similarly, the TV spots that may have helped Gillespie the most were four spots attacking Northam for voting against a measure that would have barred sanctuary cities. One ad shows the words “Rape. Kill. Control.” on the TV screen as it refers to MS-13, the criminal gang of mostly illegal immigrants who are constantly in the local TV news for murder and other crimes, and concludes that Northam put families at risk.
“Gillespie is running almost as Trump-lite with an issue such as sanctuary cities. He sees his chance is intensifying his approach to his base and making sure it turns out,” says Rozell. Gillespie’s sanctuary cities spots “mostly played to his base,” says Geoff Skelley, political analyst at the University of Virginia
There is an irony in this Gillespie approach, because even in the primary, he stressed economic issues, focusing on jobs and economic growth. And last year, he kept a measured distance from candidate Trump, as well as from hot-button social issues.
This shift in strategy for Gillespie has its risks. Indeed, Northam has made a major effort to tie Gillespie to Trump, who lost the state in 2016 and remains unpopular among many voters. When Vice President Mike Pence came to Virginia recently to campaign for the GOP, the Northam campaign sent out an email quoting Pence saying, “The president sent me” to help elect Gillespie. Over and over Democratic ads stress voting for Northam is a vote against Trump.
In the money chase, Northam has led from the beginning, with the latest figures showing that he ended September with $5.7 million on hand to Gillespie’s $2.5 million. In addition, both candidates are benefitting from outside spending, including Northam from pro-choice groups and Gillespie from the National Rifle Association.
All but one of the latest four polls have given the lead to Northam, with an average of 49.75% for Northam to 43.25% for Gillespie, more than a six point lead. The only survey to show Gillespie ahead was by Monmouth University, which showed Gillespie with 48% to Northam’s 47%. In the Monmouth survey last month, Northam led 49% to 44%. The poll clearly showed the geographic divide: Northam leading in Northern Virginia by 64% to 32% and Gillespie ahead in the rural areas west of I-95 by 64% to 31%.
Republican National Committeeman Morton Blackwell points out that in 2014, when Gillespie was running for the Senate, he was way behind in the polls, but came within less than one percentage point of winning. The same was true for Republican Ken Cuccinelli in his 2013 gubernatorial bid; he lost by 56,000 votes, far fewer than the polls had forecast.
Blackwell says that the GOP is well-organized to boost turnout. “There’s even a strong effort going on in Arlington County, which is a Democratic stronghold… Gilllspie has three full time youth campaign operatives. They are well organized and are providing lots of volunteers.” He adds, “Also, they are photogenic, because they are young.” Blackwell opines, “I am optimistic. It is generally conceded that Ed [Gillespie] has run a much more vigorous campaign,” including in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.
“Offyear turnout is a bit older and whiter,” says Rozell. “This favors Gillespie.” Skelley agrees: “The electorate in an off year is older and more educated. The former will help Gillespie; the latter will help Northam.” He adds, “A lower turnout among non-white voters in an off year helps Gillespie.”
Democrats are also working on turnout in their strongholds and among groups, such as African Americans, who traditionally vote Democratic.
Northam was the beneficiary of a campaign stop in Richmond by former President Barack Obama, who carried Virginia twice. The former president addressed “a raucous crowd of thousands,” said the Washington Post. This probably countered the embarrassment suffered by the Northam campaign when it was pointed out in the media that some of his campaign literature featured pictures of himself and Attorney General Mark Herring (R), but omitted a photo of Justin Fairfax, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, who is African American.
This is a highly competitive race that could go either way, with an edge – but not a big one – to Democrat Northam. The outcome will not only boost the prospects of one of the two parties, but will also show how campaigns can be conducted in today’s polarized politics. Stay tuned.