The men who ran Virginia’s gubernatorial campaigns say the Democratic wave that swept Ralph Northam into the governor’s mansion and ousted a dozen Republican state lawmakers last week came as a surprise to them.
“We saw some signs of course…but we never saw it get to where it was,” said Chris Leavitt, campaign manager for Republican Ed Gillespie. “We were at a place where this insurgence of voters, this intensity, was unstoppable.”
Brad Komar, who ran Northam’s campaign, didn’t expect it either. “I didn’t see the wave in June; I saw it three days beforehand,” he said.
Their comments came during a Monday post-election forum at the Arlington campus of George Mason University, hosted by the non-partisan Virginia Public Access Project. Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason, moderated a 90-minute discussion with the operatives.
After a nationally watched campaign that shattered fundraising and volunteering records, Northam won by nine points, carrying the rest of the statewide ticket and at least 15 new Democratic state lawmakers on his coattails.
With President Trump deeply unpopular in Virginia, the Gillespie campaign tried to turn the focus away from national issues, Leavitt said.
“The campaign knew we had to make this race about Virginia,” he said. The Republicans tried to turn the contest into a battle of policy ideas — a task made nearly impossible with the president dominating the headlines. And it never sought to have Trump to stump for Gillespie, although the president endorsed him and recorded a robo-call on his behalf.
“We never wanted to nationalize this race, and we felt as thought if we were going to bring the president in, it was going to elevate it,” said Leavitt.
Meanwhile, the Northam campaign counted as a success every day that Gillespie had to field a question about whether he would invite Trump onto the campaign trail, Komar said.
But he added that during the Democratic primary, Trump posed a danger to Northam if his opponent, former congressman Tom Perriello was able to define himself as the anti-Trump candidate. That’s partly why Northam coined the phrase “narcissistic maniac” - a jarring attack coming from an otherwise genteel Northam - to describe the president during the primary contest.
“It gave a great clarity that we were not going to cede the lane,” said Komar.
Other highlights of the sold-out session:
After white nationalists marched in August to defend a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, spurring a violent melee that shocked the country and left one counter protestor dead, Confederate monuments became a front-burner issue.
Northam, who grew up on the Eastern Shore, initially said he would be a “vocal advocate” for taking down those statues.
After polling showed a majority of Virginia voters want the statues to remain, Northam backpedaled and said the decisions should be left to local jurisdictions.
Leavitt said the polling gave the Gillespie campaign an opportunity to attack Northam and seize an issue where they believed the Democrat was out of touch with voters.
“Anyone would look at an issue with that wide of popularity and say we have to do something with it,” said Leavitt, later adding it would have been “malpractice” not to. “We had to pick places where to take shots and take opportunities and take some risks, and this was one where we felt the data backed it up. We took the shot and went with it.”
Komar said the issue ended up moving few voters, noting about a third of the voters who wanted the statues to stay up still backed Northam.
“They weren’t voting on that issue,” said Komar.
Controversial campaign ads
The sharpest exchange of the night came during conversations about racially tinged attack ads that roiled the race.
Leavitt stood by commercials that seemed to ink Northam to MS-13 gang violence, which critics said played on racial stereotypes of Latinos. He said the commercials targeted independents and worked in the long-term since exit polls showed Gillespie narrowly winning that group.
Komar was asked about a controversial ad from the Latino Victory Fund, which featured a white man driving a pick-up truck with a Gillespie bumper sticker and Confederate flag, menacing a group of minority children. The group reported the ad as an “in-kind” contribution to the Northam campaign.
Komar said the Northam camp did not see the commercial before it aired.
That prompted Eric Wilson, Gillespie’s digital director, to shout “Liar!” from the audience.
Later in the evening, Komar dismissed as “both-sidesism” any attempts to paint both campaigns' ads as going over the line.
“I don’t believe the Enron Ed ad was the equivalent of putting General Lee on TV,” he said, referring to ads critical of Gillespie’s lobbying record and hitting Northam on Confederate statues. “I don’t think we went as vitriolic as the other side.”
“I would respectfully disagree. These were policy differences,” replied Leavitt. “Enron Ed was a personal attack on someone.”
Lessons for 2018
Both campaign managers praised new tools in the ever-evolving technology aimed at wooing voters. For Komar, it was mass-texting tools to mobilize voters right before Election Day. Leavitt called messages on Snapchats the “new yard signs” for young voters.
And both offered insights for candidates running in 2018.
Throughout the campaign, Northam faced Democrats who were panicked that he was an uninspiring candidate who would not bring out voters in an off-year election. But Komar said the campaign found a winning formula by accenting health care, Trump’s impact on Virginia and Northam’s biography - Virginia native, Army vet, pediatric neurologist and lieutenant governor.
“We knew the story arc we needed to tell,” said Komar, summing up his take-away from the campaign as “stay disciplined and stay true to yourself.”
Leavitt urged Republicans in Washington to score policy wins to help the party’s candidates in 2018. And he said he no regrets about how he ran the Gillespie campaign.
“We were in the middle of a serious wave, and it was coming. Period,” said Leavitt. “There was only so much we could have done.”