If Democrats fail to win tonight’s Virginia gubernatorial contest — in a state that has gone blue three straight presidential elections, a state that Hillary won by five points, a state where Donald Trump’s popularity rating is in the toilet, a state that has elected Democratic governors in three of the last four contests — then the party deserves to join the Whigs in history’s dustbin.
But Democrats being Democrats, they may well blow it. Virginia is hosting the first critical electoral test of the Trump era, and one would think, on paper at least, that the party’s enormous demographic advantage in the racially diverse, highly educated, populous northern counties will be enough to help its bland moderate, Ralph Northam, defeat longtime establishment Republican Ed Gillespie.
The hitch, however, is that Gillespie — an ex-GOP national chairman, a veteran lobbyist in the Washington swamp — has morphed into a Trumpkin, emitting primal screams on crime and immigration in order to rev up the Trump-lovers who live mostly in the rural and downstate exurban counties. In the words of center-right columnist Jennifer Rubin, Gillespie has transformed himself “into a political Neanderthal,” and the cynical move might work, especially if Democratic-leaning voters do what they so often do in “off-year” elections: Stay home.
In other words, if Gillespie and Trumpism win tonight, Democrats will be dealt a double blow. Republicans who privately detest Trump but fear challenging him publicly will read those Virginia tea leaves and knuckle under accordingly in the ’18 congressional midterms — thus further confirming that the GOP has become Trump’s personal play toy.
And Democrats, by failing to elevate Northam, will double down on their dark night of the soul. They’ll spend months relitigating what went wrong in Virginia — just like they’re forever doing with the 2016 election, with all their white noise about Hillary and Bernie and Donna Brazile.
They’re still out to lunch on whether, or to what extent, their policy agenda should be progressive or centrist (Northam, the current lieutenant governor, has tried to straddle both), so whatever unity they have these days hinges on opposing Trump. But what happens if tonight’s election proves that opposing Trump, even in a blue-tilting state that strongly opposes Trump, is not good enough to win? There will be blood.
Northam has been leading in the Virginia polls, mostly by unimpressive single digits — eerily mirroring the final national polls that favored Hillary a year ago. According to Republican strategist Brad Todd, “Northam begins with a natural cushion — one he has tried to swell by linking [Gillespie] to the president. If Gillespie pulls off the upset, he will have done it by proving that Trump’s new coalition can be kept intact … without becoming a concrete life preserver in the suburban waters where the president lags.”
Trump didn’t stump with Gillespie (he has confined his support to a string of tweets) because Gillespie’s campaign didn’t want to risk a backlash in the metropolitan blue counties — most notably Fairfax, the state’s most populous, where Trump last November pulled less than 30 percent of voters. However, Gillespie has served raw meat by running frequent TV ads that tagged Northam as “weak” on criminal gangs. And those ads have helped move the needle toward the GOP.
In the final month, Gillespie narrowed Northam’s poll lead while the ads aired, which suggests that not only did they score with Trump voters, but they also may have resonated with some moderate Virginians — who do worry about “illegal-immigrant” criminal gangs. Fear of crime has clicked as a Republican message since at least the 1988 presidential race, when it helped sink Michael Dukakis (in other words, Trump didn’t invent that tactic), so who’s to say it can’t work now?
Many of you may remember Dukakis, the milquetoast Democratic candidate who got mauled by the visceral Republican attacks. Northam is a bit like The Duke, particularly in tone. He has also screwed up the gang issue. Gillespie’s ads basically said that because Northam once voted in the state Senate to kill a bill banning sanctuary cities, it meant that Northam was weak on gangs of undocumented immigrants. Northam’s response to that demagoguery? A wimpy flip-flop. He said that he would’ve voted for the legislation that he killed if Virginia actually had any sanctuary cities. Oh.
And even though another Gillespie ad campaign, championing the state’s Confederate statues — he wants to keep them on public property — is somewhat Trumpian, and was assailed by Northam’s allies as racist, it just so happens that 57 percent of Virginians want those statutes to stay where they are. Gillespie’s position, though tagged as conservative, is in the Virginia mainstream. Regardless of whether he wins tonight, his statue stance has helped keep him competitive.
Still, in a state where 59 percent of the citizenry reportedly condemns Trump’s performance, Democrats in the populous northern counties need only vote en masse tonight to give their beleaguered party a chance to spin some forward momentum for 2018. If they shake off their typical off-year torpor, if they can shrug off Northam’s flaws, they can make Virginia a thumbs-down referendum on Trump. They can wipe the smirk off his face and sow fresh angst among the swing- and purple-state Republicans who worry that he’ll be baggage in the contests to come.
Theoretically, Virginia’s Democrats, and its swing voters, will view those reasons as more than sufficient motivation.