For months, the assumption has been that Ralph Northam would be elected Virginia governor on Tuesday night. Now, with just hours remaining before polls open in the commonwealth, the race suddenly looks like a toss-up between Northam, the Democratic lieutenant governor, and former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie.
“It’s hard to imagine a statewide candidate who was in the lead with three weeks left who has had a worse close to their campaign,” said Glen Bolger, a GOP pollster who has worked extensively in Virginia.
And, by any objective measure, it’s hard to argue with Bolger’s assessment.
Northam absolutely botched his position on sanctuary cities in the closing weeks of the race – insisting that despite his vote to kill a bill in the state Senate that would ban sanctuary cities (even though Virginia doesn’t have any!), he actually would have voted in support of the legislation he killed if Virginia did have any sanctuary cities.
Northam’s ads – particularly those he is running in the Washington, DC media market – feel defensive. In one, he insists that “if Donald Trump is helping Virginia, I’ll work with him,” an somewhat striking reversal from Northam’s insistence that Trump was a “narcissistic maniac” earlier this year. And Northam’s attack on Gillespie as “Enron Ed” feels like an ad from 10 years ago, not today.
Speaking of ads, it’s one that Northam didn’t sponsor that has caused him the most trouble over the final month of the race. The commercial in question was paid for the Latino Victory Fund and showed four minority children being chased by a man in a pickup truck with a Confederate flag and a Gillespie bumper sticker. The ad has generated massive controversy – and Gillespie has seized on it as evidence that Northam and Democrats believe all Republicans to be racists.
Then there are the other intangibles in the race working against Northam. Northam is not the fierce anti-Trump liberal that many Democratic activists in the state want. That candidate was former Rep. Tom Perriello, who lost to Northam in a primary earlier this year. Northam is also from a part of the state –the eastern shore – that is not terribly populated or a traditional source of statewide Democratic candidates.
“He is running a campaign that is true to him,” said one Democratic pollster who has worked in the state for decades. “Mainstream, practical, continue Virginia’s progress.” Northam simply can’t sell as a hard-line and aggressive anti-Trumper, the source argues, so he’s been smart not to try.
The Democratic source also noted that Gillespie has shown an ability to close strong – he came from nowhere to lose to Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat, by just 18,000 votes in 2014. Plus, when Democrats have won the Virginia governorship (in 2001, 2005 and 2013) the races have been close (five points, six points and three points, respectively).
The problem for Northam in this race might well be expectations. Heading into this year, many Democrats viewed a win here as a no-brainer. Virginia has been transformed over the last decade from a reliably Republican state to a Democratic-leaning one; President Barack Obama carried it twice, Hillary Clinton won it by six points in 2016 and Democrats control the governorship and both US Senate seats. Trump is not terribly popular in the state – especially in the highly populated northern Virginia suburbs that encircle DC.
A look at the aggregate of the polling – and there’s been lots of it – done in the last week or so of this race shows Northam ahead, but by less than some people expected.
According to Real Clear Politics’ poll of polls, Northam now has, on average, a lead of just over three points on Gillespie. Yes, that’s down from the six-and-a-half point edge he held at this time last month. But given the disastrously bad closing week of the race for Northam, the fact he is still ahead at all is somewhat remarkable – and may speak to the durability of his advantage.
Here’s the thing: Excuses aside, if Northam loses the governor’s race in Virginia tomorrow, it will set off a panicked blame game not just in the state but nationally, as liberals will insist that Perriello would have won had the party nominated him. (In that, it will echo the debate over whether Clinton or Bernie Sanders would have been the better nominee against Trump – a fight still happening within the Democratic Party despite the fact that the election ended almost a year ago.)
Given all of that, there’s a tremendous amount riding on Northam on Tuesday night. Can he find a way to win even after enduring such a bad final month? And if he can’t, what (if anything!) should we conclude about the state of the Democratic Party in Virginia and nationally?