The race for governor of Virginia looked like a slam dunk for the Democrats only a fortnight or so ago, and now it doesn’t. Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, the Democrat, is still the betting favorite (for people who do that sort of thing), but his double-digit lead in the public-opinion polls has been cut in half.
Momentum can be scary, and with less than a month to go before the Nov. 7 election he feels the hot breath of Ed Gillespie, the Republican candidate, on the back of his neck, closing. Mr. Gillespie seems to know how to burn barns at the finish line. With scant help from his party, he came within a percentage point of retiring Sen. Mark Warner last year.
It’s scary for all the Democrats. Local Democratic leaders in the mostly rural parts of Virginia are grumbling that the Northam campaign is shunning them because their districts lean heavily Republican. This, say the rural Democrats, means writing off the Shenandoah Valley, the Eastern Shore, Southwest Virginia and Southside, spending little money and time trying to wrestle those parts of the state away from the Republicans.
Jay Clarke, the chairman of the Democratic committee for Rockbridge County outside of Lexington, complains that his part of the state is not only getting few field workers to canvass prospective voters, but inaccurate voter-registration data as well on which to base canvassing. “The [Democratic Party of Virginia] stands condemned for leaving the energy, talent and public-spiritedness of our Democrats on the table, unconsumed,” he wrote to state party chief, and “malevolent neglect” is “threatening Democratic success in future elections.” In a fit of frustration, he resigned, only to think again with a cooler head and withdraw his resignation.
But if you want to go duck hunting, as the late Barry Goldwater was fond of saying, you have to go where the ducks are. The Democratic ducks are in and around Richmond, the Tidewater and the Northern Virginia suburbs around Washington— and in black neighborhoods across the state. Barack Obama, Joe Biden and other national Democratic big names, popular where the ducks are, will soon be arriving to campaign for Mr. Northam.
Mr. Obama will campaign Thursday in Richmond, which Hillary Clinton won by 65,000 votes, and the Northam campaign is counting on him to fire up black voters, who may need it. Voter turnout typically falls off by 30 points or so in political races in the year after a presidential election. One poll finds that Mr. Northam leads Ed Gillespie by 75 points to 6 points with the rest undecided, but he can’t be lulled by those numbers and “underperform” if he expects to win.
The word that Mr. Obama was on the way fired up Ralph Northam. He announced his “happy and exciting news” of the visit of the former president at a happy-hour rally at a wine bar in Richmond. “President Obama said, ‘I want to tell you how important Virginia is to me. It means the world to me. It means our legacy.’”
But Mr. Obama won’t campaign outside the liberal bubble, large as it may be, because he has little appeal in the rural counties. The “national Democrats” are poison in those places, with their smarmy cultural baggage in Virginia and elsewhere in “flyover country.” Ralph Northam has to walk a narrow line between liberal and conservative Virginians, and his dilemma now is that neither liberal nor conservative is likely to forgive him if they see him saying moderate things to the other side. A Democrat’s lot in Virginia is suddenly not a happy one.
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