RICHMOND — Volunteers for Republican Ed Gillespie and Democrat Ralph Northam will descend on homes across Virginia this weekend as the rival gubernatorial campaigns make their first big push on the ground with backing from the national and state parties.
Both sides have been touting the strength of their field operations, which have been bolstered by outside money and staff.
The Republican National Committee recently dispatched a young operative who helped a candidate uneasy with President Trump navigate a win in June in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District. Elliott Echols, who led the RNC’s efforts for now-Rep. Karen Handel, is doing the same for Gillespie.
Republicans said that they have 50 paid field organizers — the same number Trump had working for him in the state in 2016 — with more to come, plus an unspecified number of volunteer door-knockers. They said the paid staff is part of the “permanent ground game” that Reince Priebus, now Trump’s former chief of staff, launched over the past several years as he served as chairman of the Republican National Committee.
“The RNC is fully committed to supporting Ed Gillespie and the entire Republican ticket,” RNC Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel said in a written statement. “Ed understands that Virginians need a leader who is a proven job creator and shares their vision for the future of the Commonwealth. When the Democrats packed up and left after the 2016 election, we kept our team in place, and because of our continued presence we now have more than 50 staffers in the field working hand-in-hand with the campaigns, state party, and RGA [the Republican Governors Association] to bring that message directly to voters all across Virginia.”
Democrats said they have nearly 1,000 volunteers lined up for their “weekend of action” and will have more than 100 paid staffers by fall. They declined to say how many are on the payroll now but touted an online sign-up page for 60 canvassing and phone-banking events set for this weekend.
The director of the Democrats’ “coordinated campaign” — the combined efforts of the Northam campaign, state party, Democratic National Committee and Democratic Governors Association — has been on the ground since March. She is Lauren Brainerd, who worked last year on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign as state director in Kansas and Idaho, and as a regional field director in Iowa. She was a regional field director for Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s 2013 campaign. McAuliffe (D) is prohibited under the state constitution from seeking consecutive terms.
“During the primary, we saw record-breaking turnout for Virginia Democrats, with nearly more folks showing up to vote for Ralph Northam than Ed Gillespie and Corey Stewart combined,” Northam spokeswoman Ofirah Yheskel said in an email, referring to the top two finishers in the GOP primary. “Our party is offering an optimistic vision for taking Virginia to the next level and taking a stand against Donald Trump’s extreme agenda to threaten our values. That’s why we’re seeing so much grassroots enthusiasm for Democrats up and down the ticket and our volunteers are fired up about doing the work to take us to victory in November.”
The campaigns launch their ground games from strikingly different vantage points.
Northam, the state’s sitting lieutenant governor and a former Army doctor who treated wounded soldiers during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, raised more money through June — $9.4 million to Gillespie’s $6.7 million. But Northam blew through all but $1.75 million of that to fight off an aggressive primary challenge from former congressman Tom Perriello.
Believing that he faced no real threat from rivals Stewart and Frank Wagner, an underfunded state senator, Gillespie spent relatively little in his primary and still had $3.2 million heading into July.
Since then, national Republican and Democratic groups have poured millions of dollars into both campaigns. But Northam still appears to be in war chest-replenishment mode while Gillespie is already on the air with three TV ads.
Still, the political fallout from the primaries appeared to be just the opposite, with Northam seeming to emerge stronger and Gillespie widely seen as wounded.
Northam far exceeded expectations and polls with a 12-point win over Perriello. Perriello quickly endorsed Northam, pledging to unite the party behind him — even as environmentalists continue to protest Northam’s refusal to take a firm stance on two proposed natural-gas pipelines.
Gillespie vastly underperformed in his primary, barely squeaking out a 1.2-point victory over Stewart, Trump’s one-time Virginia chairman, who had campaigned on the preservation of the state’s Confederate monuments. After that close call, some high-level Republicans urged Gillespie, a classic establishment figure, to bring on staffers who understand Trump voters.
But since the primary, Gillespie has adopted a more aggressive tone and tactics, while Northam’s campaign has been relatively low key. A recent poll had the race at a dead heat.
Echols joins Gillespie’s effort fresh from a race that has been touted as a road map for Republicans running in the Trump era.
Handel, an establishment Republican, avoided any mention of Trump ahead of a crowded April 18 special election. But she embraced the president in a June 20 runoff with Democrat Jon Ossoff.
Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman, lobbyist and adviser to President George W. Bush, tried to duck all things Trump in the GOP primary. But he began dropping the president’s name in the past two weeks and highlighting areas of agreement, such as tougher immigration enforcement.