If the Democrats’ strategy for winning the governor’s race in Virginia is to convince people that Ralph Northam can lose, they are doing a really good job. I am worried they are right. My inbox has been flooded with increasingly hysterical messages warning that the race is tight — messages that were meant as a hedge against complacency when it wasn’t. This race was supposed to be a relatively easy win for Northam. Remember that Virginia is an increasingly blue state; Northam is cut from the same moderate Democratic cloth that Virginians have favored recently; lobbyist Ed Gillespie faced a fractured Republican Party to mend and the plunging fortunes of President Trump to defend. Let’s try to understand why Gillespie now seems to be closing the gap, down to five points in the latest Washington Post-Schar School poll.
Based on the dozens of ads I saw this weekend (unlike many viewers, I actually pay close attention to them), Gillespie has a clear strategy and messaging to support it. His strategy is the same as his main political benefactor, George W. Bush: Present himself as a “compassionate conservative,” at least in vote-rich and mostly blue Northern Virginia. (I imagine he has a rather more hard-line message in his campaign’s mailers, phone calls and radio ads targeted to more conservative areas of the state.) He supports this strategy with workmanlike but effective ads: Here’s Ed talking about his tax-cut plan for Virginia and how poor old Ralph Northam thinks you’re rich if you make $17,000 a year and has never supported tax cuts. There’s Ed doing a Willie Horton on Northam, accusing him of supporting rights for convicted felons who upon release commit heinous crimes, but softening the ad’s unfairness with a reasonable statement that he’s not against restoring rights for those who have paid their debt to society, just not those who get out early or get off easy. Finally, he has an ad presumably targeted to parents with school-age children, reassuring them that, like his mentor, he really values public education.
Meanwhile, Northam seems stalled with less than a week to go. Based on his ads, his strategy seems defensive and soft. In one ad, he finally responds to Gillespie’s charges that he is weak on crime, which is a fine example of the political rebuttal genre, but not where you want to be at this point in a campaign. Moreover, he is now on the defensive for an ad a group supporting him was running that unfairly tied Gillespie to white supremacists. His positive ads tout his experience as an Army doctor and civilian pediatrician and links his love for children to wanting to build a better future for them. He will need a large gender gap to win, but I’m not sure that in these selfish and uncertain days, people are willing to wait for their children to grow up for things to get better, especially when Gillespie tells them he’ll cut them a check right now.
Strategy in political campaigns is a little like a strategy for running a marathon: It’s well-crafted for much of the race, but at some mile marker, training and sheer will need to propel you across the finish line. Now that the leaves are almost fallen from the trees and the voting booths are coming out of storage, Northam is ahead but sucking wind. Gillespie is running comfortably but still behind. Can Northam gut it out and hold off Gillespie’s surge?