Democrats Face Biggest Election Of Trump Era On Tuesday

Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, Democratic candidate for governor, fires up the crowd at a Democratic Party victory rally in downtown Harrisonburg, Va., Monday, Oct. 30, 2017, as part of his campaign.(AP Photo/Daily News-Record, Daniel Lin)
Daniel Lin/The Daily News-Record

Democrats face their biggest electoral test of 2017 on Tuesday in Virginia — a must-win if they hope to show they can bounce back in the Trump era.

Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) appears to be clinging to a narrow lead against former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie in the race for governor, a key test of whether the wind is really at Democrats’ backs heading into the 2018 midterms and how well they can handle Donald Trump-style GOP race-baiting.

If Northam wins, Democrats can claim their first big election victory since President Trump’s win almost a year ago after coming up short in a number of uphill battle special elections. But if Gillespie wins after running a deeply divisive campaign focused on racially charged topics like sanctuary cities and Confederate monuments in a state Hillary Clinton won last year, Democrats are likely to have a collective meltdown — one that’s already been building after a rough final week on the campaign trail for Northam and progressive-establishment infighting over the Democratic National Committee’s role in the 2016 primaries.

“Obviously a win is important here. I’m not going to even contemplate the other options at this point in time,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) told TPM Monday afternoon.

Most public and private polls from both Democrats and Republicans indicate a close race, with Northam holding a slight lead.

A Northam win would help quell the nerves that have been building with some Democratic operatives over the past two weeks as they’ve watched this race tighten up due to some missteps from the Democrat and his allies.

Progressives have been hammering Northam for his centrist tendencies, while creating some hurdles for him in the last week that he’s failed to clear smoothly.

Those screw-ups have included Northam allowing a union to print a mailer that left off Democrats’ African American candidate for lieutenant governor (he opposed a gas pipeline the union likes), Northam flipping to say he’d sign a bill banning sanctuary cities after months of beating back Gillespie’s attacks on the topic as ridiculous because Virginia doesn’t have any sanctuary cities, and a number of unhelpful controversies stirred up by liberal outside groups.

Democrats admit it wasn’t a pretty final week on the campaign trail — but are feeling confident that Northam will eke out a win.

“Last week’s Beltway tempest doesn’t change the fact that Democrats are more engaged and excited than Republicans this election cycle, and it hasn’t distracted voters from the fact that Ed Gillespie has deployed the most racist and divisive campaign tactics in modern Virginia political history,” Carolyn Fiddler, a Democratic strategist with deep ties in Virginia who works for the liberal Daily Kos, told TPM. 

The optics aren’t all that matters. Besides the obvious important policy role a governor plays in a large swing state, whoever wins will be the governor the next time Virginia draws its electoral maps. A Northam victory would force a compromise map or one drawn by the courts, likely undoing Republicans’ seven-to-four edge in the Congressional delegation. If Gillespie wins, Republicans would likely be able to gerrymander statehouse maps to lock in unified control for another decade, as well as protect their current members.

And while Gillespie has decided to keep President Trump at arm’s length (even as he’s adopted many of the president’s tactics), the Trump hasn’t stayed quiet about the race.

Republicans are feeling better by the day that Gillespie might be able to grind out a win — a result that would be stunning given Trump’s terrible numbers in the state, Virginia’s Democratic trend and Clinton’s five-point win there last year.

“We feel like the momentum’s with us, and love the complete and utter disaster that is Democrat morale right now, the circular firing squad is out for Ralph Northam,” Republican Party of Virginia Chairman John Whitbeck told TPM. “Democrats have tried to nationalize this and the danger to them is what happens if we win it. … It’ll be devastating to them.”

But Northam’s team says they’re feeling good about where things stand — and that there are lessons to be learned for other Democrats about how to run in the age of Trump if they win.

“You have to run as an authentic candidate authentic to who you are, you have to be willing to counter Republican fear-mongering, and you have to build a turnout organization that is going to aggressively outperform what you’ve seen in the past,” Northam spokesman David Turner told TPM.