The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For the Democrat in the Va. governor’s race, victory may hinge on black voters

Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) greets the crowd at an Oct. 29 campaign event at Blue Bee Cider in Richmond. (Julia Rendleman for The Washington Post)

Nearly every evening after work, Monica Hutchinson crunches up and down leaf-strewn sidewalks to remind African American residents that Election Day is Nov. 7 and to deliver this message: "We are the deciding vote."

Hutchinson, a volunteer with the advocacy group New Virginia Majority, has data on her side. African Americans make up about 20 percent of Virginia’s electorate, and a surge in black voting has been decisive in recent statewide elections. Democratic candidates were the beneficiaries, tilting what had been a reliably red state into full swing status.

But that wave shows signs of ebbing, and some argue that the Democratic ticket led by gubernatorial nominee Ralph Northam hasn’t done enough to energize black voters and ensure a big turnout against Republican Ed Gillespie.

It’s part of a national problem for Democrats, who are fretting over the way forward in the age of President Trump and struggling to take advantage of demographic shifts that should favor them.

Some black Democrats worry that the party is taking the wrong lesson from Trump’s victory, putting too much emphasis on trying to win back working-class whites instead of solidifying the minority electorate that was awakened in 2008 by Barack Obama.

“The Democratic Party doesn’t seem to have gotten the message,” said Phil Thompson, president of the Loudoun County chapter of the NAACP. “They just take our votes for granted.”

The consequence could be a low turnout, which would probably be fatal to Northam in a close election Tuesday.

African Americans turned out to vote in the 2013 governor's race at roughly the same rate as Virginians overall and made the difference for Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) in a narrow win. This year, African Americans are somewhat less likely than whites to say they are certain to vote or are following the race closely, according to a Washington Post-Schar School poll released Tuesday.

A new Post-Schar School poll finds Northam leading Gillespie 89 percent to 8 percent among black likely voters, almost identical to McAuliffe’s margin of 90 percent to 8 percent four years ago.

A week before Election Day, new poll finds tightening race for Va. governor

Virginia's Democratic ticket occasionally has hurt its own message to black voters. Last month, the Northam campaign authorized a flier in Northern Virginia that omitted lieutenant governor candidate Justin Fairfax, who would be the first African American elected statewide in more than 25 years. The omission was requested by a union that funded the mailer and had endorsed Northam but not Fairfax.

After the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville over the summer, Northam called for Confederate statues to be removed from public property — then seemed to backtrack, saying it should be a local decision.

The latest stories and details on the 2017 Virginia general election and race for governor.

The statues are a tricky issue for Northam. Numerous polls show that most Virginians don't want them taken down. His initial hard-line stance risked alienating white voters, but his "local" compromise waters down a position that many black voters are passionate about.

Gillespie, meanwhile, has played the issue both ways. He has condemned the racial violence of Charlottesville but refused to comment on Trump’s equivocation that there were “very fine people” on both sides of the conflict. And he has aired ads promising to defend Virginia’s Confederate “history” and suggesting that illegal immigration leads to Latino gang violence, while also promising to be a governor for “all Virginians.”

To become Va. governor in Trump’s America, Gillespie embraces culture wars

At the same time, Gillespie has made overtures to African American voters, attending events large and small and offering positions on issues such as criminal justice reform that bend to the left of Republican orthodoxy. For instance, Gillespie favors raising the threshold for felony larceny and said he would seek to limit the practice of suspending a driver's license for failure to pay court fees — positions similar to Northam's.

The efforts have drawn notice among some black business­people and those who are less connected to the Democratic establishment.

“I’m just looking for the person that says they’re going to do the most in our community. I don’t care about the rhetoric,” said Jerry Lee, 47, of Richmond, who works with felons to readjust to life outside prison. “If you’re telling me that you’re going to do work in my community, then I’m all for giving you a shot, and that’s pretty much what I’m getting from Gillespie.”

He said that both candidates have come to events hosted by his group but that Gillespie took notes and made specific policy recommendations. Northam, he said, was “more broad.” Lee came away feeling that the Democrat expected support simply because the audience was primarily African American.

Northam has spent most of the year attending multiple black churches on Sundays and regularly speaks to largely black groups and businesses. As lieutenant governor, he established relationships with African American elected officials across the state. They helped mobilize votes for him during the June Democratic primary, when he posted an unexpectedly large win over former congressman Tom Perriello.

The criticism of Northam is not that he ignores the black community; it’s that he does little to inspire excitement. The NAACP’s Thompson said Northam and other Democrats too often stress their work to restore voting rights to felons when speaking with African Americans.

“They talk about felony restoration like we’re all criminals,” Thompson said.

Democrats have been curiously low-key in pointing out that Fairfax, the nominee for lieutenant governor, would be the first African American elected statewide since Gov. L. Douglas Wilder.

But Nadia Anderson, 39, a Richmond businesswoman who attended an event with Northam at a beauty salon, said she is glad the party stresses Fairfax’s qualifications and not his skin color. “They’re not saying vote for him because he’s black,” she said.

In recent days, Democrats have brought in national figures aimed specifically at energizing African American voters.

“We can always do more,” Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) said Sunday after attending events with voters in Richmond. She had appeared with former U.S. attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr., telling a diverse group at Blue Bee Cider that “Virginia has the fate of our country in its hands.”

Democrats everywhere, not just in Virginia, “can do a better job of turning out those votes” in minority communities, she said.

“It’s critical that we put the resources into reminding all of these communities that they matter, especially when there is so much hate and division that is being spewed,” she said.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) were both scheduled to appear for Northam and the Democratic ticket on Wednesday night.

The party’s biggest effort to motivate voters in Virginia was a Richmond rally last month with Obama.

Obama back on campaign trail to rally with Northam in Richmond

Many of the thousands who attended expressed euphoria at being able to bask in Obama’s presence.

“I was just reflecting on how great those eight years were with him,” Shadi Khalil, 27, a graduate student at the University of Virginia, said shortly after the rally. Asked whether he had similar passion for Northam, he smiled. “I’m passionate about him defeating Gillespie,” he said.

Critics argue that the late effort to mobilize votes doesn’t show a long-term investment in wooing minority communities. The consequence is that the enthusiasm generated by Obama and his presidency could be slipping away.

“There are signs that energy and mobilization among African American voters was not where we had it once upon a time when we put in the resources and efforts and had a candidate like Barack Obama,” said Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher.

Obama’s election unlocked a pent-up wave of African American voters nationwide, and Virginia supported a Democrat for president for the first time since Lyndon Johnson. Although just 52 percent of black residents in Virginia participated in the 2004 presidential election, black turnout surged to 68 percent when Obama ran in 2008 and 67 percent in 2012, according to the Census Bureau.

Last year, black turnout in Virginia dropped slightly to 65 percent and fell even more in many places across the country.

Belcher rejects the idea that black voters stayed home because they didn’t have a black candidate. Democrats who make that argument “are using [Obama’s] blackness as an excuse for not putting together the tactics, the strategy and the resources to mobilize these voters,” he said.

A spokesman for the Northam campaign said Democrats have spent $3.5 million this year on phone and door-knocking efforts to reach minority voters. An outside group, BlackPAC, says it will spend $1.1 million to “mobilize black voters” in Virginia. That has included TV and online advertising, mailers and door-to-door canvassing in Hampton Roads.

“There’s a tendency to engage with black voters later, to see them as just get-out-the-vote, motivation voters,” said Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of BlackPAC. “I think that’s the wrong approach. We need to see black voters as voters that need to be persuaded.”

Which is what Hutchinson has been trying to do almost every day for weeks now.

On a warm night in late October, limping slightly on a reconstructed ankle, Hutchinson walked up to a small white house in eastern Henrico County just as Shirley Christian was taking out the trash.

Her right arm bandaged from dialysis, a scar peeking out of her shirt from recent open-heart surgery, Christian, 59, said she was worried about the cost of health care. Hutchinson unleashed a pep talk about taking a stand for that issue in the upcoming election.

“And the first step is voting,” she said. “When it comes down to it, if an elected official knows that you don’t vote, then their job isn’t in jeopardy from you. So long as we’re united in our voting, we’re essentially telling them, you know . . . ”

“ . . . This is what we’d like to have,” Christian said.

“Exactly,” Hutchinson said. “So once we have that united front, things will change.”

Scott Clement contributed to this report.

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