Democratic nerves are fraying ahead of Tuesday’s governor’s race in Virginia, a contest most in the party had expected to win handily.
If the party’s nominee, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, loses to his Republican opponent, Ed Gillespie, it will send shockwaves across the party, likely setting off another round of infighting and recrimination.
That’s partly because Northam has run a more centrist campaign — in both tone and substance — than many Democrats would have liked.
Democrats “need to focus on delivering for the constituents who vote for them and not punch them in the face,” said Charles Chamberlain, the executive director of Democracy for America (DFA), a progressive group.
The race has reopened the wounds of the 2016 primary, when Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhite House accuses Biden of pushing ‘conspiracy theories’ with Trump election claim Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton qualifies to run for county commissioner in Florida MORE and Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill’s 12:30 Report: Milley apologizes for church photo-op Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness MORE sparred over the direction of the Democratic Party. While Clinton won the nomination, she lost the White House — an outcome Sanders supporters attribute to her more centrist approach.
The mild-mannered Northam defeated a more liberal challenger in his own primary — Tom Perriello, who had Sanders’s backing.
More recently, Northam has got himself into a tangle on so-called sanctuary cities. Northam suggested he would sign a bill banning sanctuary cities, even though no such cities exist in the commonwealth.
That position cost Northam the support of Chamberlain’s group, and the DFA head makes no bones about his frustration.
“There isn’t a single Republican who cares about sanctuary cities who, after Northam flip-flopped, is now going to vote for him,” he insisted. “But there are a lot of people in the Democratic constituency who are now less likely to vote for him.”
But other, more establishment-friendly voices within the Democratic Party worry that the left will push nominees into unelectable positions, especially in traditional battleground states like Virginia.
“I understand that the base is going to say that the candidate didn’t do enough to excite a particular grass-roots part of the electorate,” said one Democratic strategist who asked for anonymity to speak candidly.
“My response to that is: This is Virginia,” the source added. “In the best-case scenario, this is a purple state, maybe with a bit of a bluer hue. In order to win, you have to figure out how to appeal to those moderates and independents at the same time as appealing to your base. It’s a trade-off.”
The angst in Democratic circles is intensified further because Northam’s opponent, Gillespie, has courted the conservative base assiduously — despite himself being a former head of the Republican National Committee who is steeped in the Washington establishment.
Gillespie has staked out Trump-like positions on cultural hot-button issues such as confederate monuments, Latino gangs and National Football League protests.
Those tactics have drawn charges of race-baiting from Democrats as well as a scathing Washington Post editorial over the weekend that accused him of sounding “not just a dog whistle” but “a mating call” to “the intolerant, racially resentful parts of the Republican base.”
But the tactic has also proven effective, at least if the most recent polls can be trusted.
In a state that Clinton carried by 5 points last year, Northam is up by only 3 points in the RealClearPolitics average — and whatever momentum exists in the race appears to be trending Gillespie’s way.
Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, described the contest now as a “race for the base.”
He said that, during the earliest phase of the contest, it appeared that Northam and Gillespie were each having some crossover appeal in areas of the state that would have been expected to strongly favor their opponent.
But, he added, “Gillespie’s campaign has become a lot more focused on immigration issues and attack ads, and that drove the base both ways: It brought back Gillespie’s base in western Virginia but it also moved the moderates in the D.C. suburbs into Northam’s camp.”
The latest Monmouth poll, released on Monday, gave Northam just a 2-point edge, well within the survey’s margin of error of 3.7 points.
In certain respects, Gillespie has played a nuanced game. Despite the increasing aggressiveness of his appeals on social and cultural issues, he made no serious push to have Trump campaign for him and does not generally mention the president in his ads.
The assumption is that he is trying to appeal to Trump voters through his rhetoric while not turning off those who feel a strong antipathy toward the president.
Trump, for his part, tweeted in support of Gillespie late Monday afternoon from his overseas trip through Asia.
“The state of Virginia economy, under Democrat rule, has been terrible. If you vote Ed Gillespie tomorrow, it will come roaring back!” Trump tweeted.
The president’s erstwhile chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, told The New York Times at the weekend that Gillespie had “closed an enthusiasm gap by rallying around the Trump agenda.” Bannon added, “I think the big lesson for Tuesday is that, in Gillespie’s case, Trumpism without Trump can show the way forward.”
But other Republicans, already skeptical of what they consider a self-aggrandizing tendency on Bannon’s part, are not persuaded. Some note that Gillespie is simply a less personally abrasive figure than Trump.
Referring to Bannon’s claim, GOP strategist Alex Conant argued, “I think that is completely wrong. I think that is very self-serving spin from Bannon. Nobody would ever confuse Ed Gillespie, who was one of [former president] George W. Bush’s top advisers, for a Breitbart-inspired candidate.”
A recent poll from Conant’s firm, Firehouse Strategies, and data firm Optimus showed Gillespie leading Northam by 3 points.
If that were to actually happen, there will be near panic in Democratic ranks.
“We’re tired of losing,” Chamberlain said.
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