ONANCOCK, Va. — Drive down the Eastern Shore of Virginia and you'd be hard-pressed to figure out that a favorite son of this isolated strip of farms and fishing villages is running for governor.
There are far more campaign signs for Republican Ed Gillespie than for Democrat and Eastern Shore native Ralph Northam, despite the fact that this is the very kind of rural area Democrats say they want to reclaim in the wake of Donald Trump’s election.
Some in rural districts across Virginia complain that the state Democratic machinery continues to be more interested in populous urban areas that are reliably blue on Election Day than rebuilding relationships in the countryside. One county chairman briefly resigned two weeks ago, accusing the state party of “malevolent neglect.”
Monday’s third and final debate of the governor’s race is being held in Wise County, in the far southwest, to highlight rural issues. But if national Democrats still stinging from Trump’s victory are looking to Virginia for a strategy to turn rural America blue again, they may be disappointed.
"The plain fact is that for Democrats the votes are in Northern Virginia, Richmond, Tidewater, Virginia Beach — and it's probably enough to win an election if a Democrat racks up very large margins in the urban corridor. I think we're seeing that with the Northam campaign strategy to this point," said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.
Virginia Democratic leaders argue that the criticism is off the mark. For one thing, their candidate, Northam, speaks with a distinct Southern lilt and grew up working on fishing boats and tending chickens and goats.
State Democratic Party Chairwoman Susan Swecker grew up on a farm in Highland County, also one of the most isolated parts of the state, and she said she has been doing a lot of unglamorous work to build up the party’s foundation.
“We didn’t lose rural voters overnight, and we know we’re not going to win them back overnight, but I think it’s very important that we show up and compete everywhere,” Swecker said.
But gravity is strong around Virginia’s urban crescent. African Americans have been key to Democratic victories in statewide elections in recent years, and more of those voters are in cities and suburbs. Rural areas where Democrats were strong a generation ago have gone heavily red; many haven’t elected a Democrat in years. With all 100 House of Delegates seats up for election this year, the party has concentrated resources in areas that have some chance of success.
Jay Clarke, chairman of the Democratic committee for Rockbridge County outside Lexington, brought the issue to a head recently when he fired off an angry resignation letter to Swecker. The missive made the rounds, was reported in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and drew an outpouring of sentiment from fellow operatives in Virginia and even other states, Clarke said.
He complained that neither the party nor the campaigns asked field workers in his remote part of the state to do any canvassing. He said the party had sent out bad data that included information on Republican residents who were never going to vote for Democrats. After months of fruitless complaining to headquarters in Richmond, he said, he was done.
“I understand the temptation to go where the votes are. It’s a necessity, of course,” said Clarke, a retired history professor. But over time, that strategy cedes vast parts of the state to Republicans and lets them cement control of the General Assembly, he said.
“Goodness, you ought to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. You can certainly appeal to voters in urban areas and contest in rural areas as well. I don’t see why the two should be incompatible,” he said.
The party responded quickly, promising to fix the data, hire more field workers and communicate better. “Do I understand their frustrations? Yes, because I’m from where they’re from,” party chairwoman Swecker said. “But I believe we have worked through whatever concerns he [Clarke] may have had.”
Clarke rescinded his resignation.
But others say the trouble is deep-seated.
“I don’t think the problems have been unique to just this year. I think, in fact, really all over the country some of the Democrats in rural areas have been a little frustrated that they’ve been taken for granted,” said Gene Zitver, chairman of the Democratic committee in Lexington. “I think there is an effort. It’s just going to take time to get it going,” he added, praising the party’s formation of a rural caucus.
Taikein Cooper, chairman of the Democratic committee in Prince Edward County, outside Farmville, said he’s “very disappointed” with the party’s rural outreach and that leaders may be missing a rare opportunity. Though Republicans have a comfortable 66-to-34 majority in the House of Delegates, Democrats pumped up by anti-Trump fervor have fielded a historic number of candidates to try to slice into that GOP advantage.
Many of those Democrats are running in solidly red districts but want to demonstrate that their party is reaching out.
“My decision to run is to show them that, yes, we are active down here,” said Alicia Kallen, 25, a novice Democrat running against powerful incumbent Republican Del. Terry Kilgore in Wise County, in coal country. Kilgore hasn’t had a challenger in years.
Kallen, whose father is the local Democratic committee chairman, said the state Democratic apparatus has offered training and regular consultations. But she feels she is fighting against years of decay as the region has turned more and more red. “My running is to kind of be that blue beacon to say we are still here, we are still fighting, there is hope for us,” she said.
Holly Hazard, a Falls Church resident who has been a longtime volunteer for the party in Northern Virginia, recently traveled to Wise to help Kallen’s campaign and was shocked by what she found.
Canvassers had to make crude photocopies of campaign fliers and didn’t have up-to-date voter information, she said. “It’s clear they’re not getting support from the party. . . . I do not believe there is a strategy for winning back those areas,” Hazard said, suggesting it’s more a matter of priorities than lack of resources.
Hazard and others have started a group called Blue Migration to help far-flung parts of the state.
“These are our people,” she said, referring to voters there. “I can’t imagine we can’t slowly win back their confidence, but we’re not going to do it if no one is out there talking to them.”
Del. Sam Rasoul of Roanoke, the westernmost Democrat in the House of Delegates, resigned a leadership role in the party caucus last year to protest what he said was its lack of outreach to rural voters who went for Trump.
This summer, he started an initiative called Democratic Promise that aims to help constituents with real-world problems. Several rural party leaders have signed up to participate — an end-run around the official party mechanisms.
“It’s clear in rural Virginia where we’ve seen the number of super-Republican precincts double that we’re losing touch with a lot of Virginia, and we need to do more as Democrats to ensure we rebuild those relationships,” Rasoul said.
In the cutthroat environment of this year’s governor’s race, though, it’s hard not to focus on sheer numbers. Former congressman Tom Perriello challenged Northam in the primary by going directly after rural voters. He held town halls, bluegrass concerts and listening tours throughout the western and southern parts of the state.
In the primary, Perriello drew far more votes than Northam in those rural areas. But Northam’s edge in Northern Virginia made that irrelevant. Northam won the nomination by 11 points.
Northam’s campaign insists it hasn’t written off the remote parts of the state. In fact, he spent years as a state senator and as lieutenant governor working for candidates in precincts large and small all over Virginia. He has released proposals to improve the economy and education in rural areas, and he talks often on the stump about his small-town upbringing and his time at Virginia Military Institute.
But when it comes to active campaigning, Northam is more often found in Northern Virginia, Richmond or Hampton Roads.
That may just be smart politics, said Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia. The state has become extremely disparate, he said, with wildly different values in its urban, suburban and rural areas.
“Cultural conservatism versus cultural liberalism is a major divide and one that’s very difficult to overcome,” he said. “I’m not sure what they can do to better appeal to those voters. The Democratic Party is not going to change its position on a host of issues just to appeal to rural voters.”
Northam is hampered by the fact that the single biggest issue in southern and western Virginia is a pair of natural gas pipelines being constructed there. Northam has infuriated environmentalists by refusing to condemn the pipelines, saying their ultimate approval is up to federal regulators.
His Republican opponent favors the pipelines, but activists have focused their ire and disappointment on Northam — perhaps making him even more reluctant to campaign in their midst, Skelley said. The campaign strenuously denies that this is the case.
Gillespie, meanwhile, who lives in Fairfax County, is working to build on Republican strength in rural parts of the state to help take the edge off Northam’s presumed lead in urban areas. That focus drives some Democrats crazy.
“It’s very galling the way Gillespie on his ads says ‘for all Virginians,’ ” said Clarke, the Rockbridge Democratic chairman. “It’s a bit patronizing, perhaps, but also effective. Why isn’t Northam doing that?”