BRISTOL, Va. — Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam hasn’t called on the Bluegrass Brothers in his bid for Virginia’s governorship, but he has called for stricter gun laws, leaving the state’s rural residents feeling increasingly written off by a party that used to reach for their votes.
But if Mr. Northam does defeat Republican Ed Gillespie in November, it will say little about whether Democrats have learned how to reach the blue-collar voters whom they squandered nationally in last year’s presidential election.
“Democrats are shot in the heartland of America, and they don’t care,” said Ben “Cooter” Jones, a former star of CBS-TV’s “The Dukes of Hazzard” and later a Democratic congressman from Georgia who now makes his home in Virginia. “You have two parties and two entirely different separate cultures supporting those parties. There are the sensibilities of New York and Los Angeles and any other major city, and those sensibilities are different from the people who live 20 or 30 miles or more outside those cities.”
This one is in Wise, the heart of Virginia’s Appalachia country, where voters have been abandoning a Democratic Party that seems far more intent on reaching out to cities and inner suburbs.
It’s a major change from the past decade, when gubernatorial candidate Mark R. Warner led a Democratic resurgence in the state, investing time and money in Southside and Southwest Virginia to court coal miners, farmers and the rest of the rural economy.
Mr. Warner made more than 40 swings through the area in that campaign and enlisted the help of Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, a Roanoke native with strong local ties to — in his words — “Bubba” culture.
Mr. Saunders had Mr. Warner sponsor a truck in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series and had a member of the famous Woods racing family cut a campaign ad for him.
Mr. Jones hit the campaign trail with Mr. Warner, and the Bluegrass Brothers, a band co-founded by brothers Robert and Victor Dowdy, recorded a catchy “Ballad of Mark Warner” song that promoted the notion that the Harvard-educated, multimillionaire candidate from Northern Virginia would “work for mountain people and economic health” and “keep our children home.”
Mr. Warner carried the sprawling 9th Congressional District and repeated the feat eight years later when he won a U.S. Senate seat in a landslide victory over former Gov. Jim Gilmore.
But in 2014, Mr. Warner eked out re-election while losing Southside and Southwest Virginia but running up votes in the more cosmopolitan regions.
Rep. H. Morgan Griffith, who ousted a longtime Democrat to win the 9th District in 2010, said the political landscape has changed since Mr. Warner’s first win.
“I think at that time, Warner representing a slightly different flavor of Democrat, reached out to the rural folks, the ‘war on coal’ hadn’t started yet, and I think folks said, ‘Yeah, this is good,’” said Mr. Griffith. “The problem is that I would submit that Warner has drifted from that a little bit, but particularly the Democratic Party has gone full tilt in the other direction on so many issues.”
Mr. Northam hasn’t ignored the area, claiming 15 trips to Southside and Southwest for the campaign. He also volunteered his physician services this year to the Remote Area Medical project to highlight gaps in the health care system and promote his belief that “everyone should have access to affordable, quality health care.”
He has vowed to combat the opioid epidemic and expand broadband access in the region. He has proposed a $15 million expansion of the University of Virginia campus in Wise and wants the state to set aside tens of millions of dollars each year for a workforce training program to teach skills needed in high-demand job fields.
‘Where their bread is buttered’
Former Rep. Rick Boucher, who held the 9th District for 14 terms before losing to Mr. Griffith, applauded Mr. Northam’s approach. He said Mr. Northam’s upbringing on the rural Eastern Shore translates well to the southwestern part of the state and that his focus on economic issues is spot on.
“That is what voters of the region care the most about,” Mr. Boucher said.
Touting his rural roots and work as volunteer director of a children’s hospice in Portsmouth, Aviva “Vee” Shapiro Frye, chairwoman of the party’s rural caucus, said Mr. Northam is the “embodiment of rural values” and is boosting the Democratic brand in this region because he comes off as a genuine, well-meaning, person — as opposed to a slick politician.
“We have our work cut out for us, but I think you are going to see a better-than-usual turnout, and I think Ralph will surprise people with how well he does,” she said. “You bet we are on a comeback.”
But the tone of the Northam campaign breaks with the winning Democratic campaigns of the previous decade.
Where Mr. Warner courted the National Rifle Association, Mr. Northam campaigns with gun control groups. He also has staked out stances on immigration and Confederate memorials that are in line with the national Democratic Party’s strategy of stitching together a “rainbow coalition” of minorities and liberal issues activists.
“I don’t think the Northam campaign has pursued anything like the Warner strategy,” said political science professor Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. “I don’t get the sense that the Northam campaign is trying to win in the election by expanding the rural Democrat vote. I think what they are trying to do is re-create the demographic vote that [Hillary] Clinton got in 2016.”
Mr. Kidd added, “It is not that they walked away from rural Virginia, but the bottom line is they know where their bread is buttered.”
Mrs. Clinton did too last year in her presidential election campaign and delivered a 5 percentage point victory over Donald Trump in the state.
But the strategy cost Democrats in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania — each with large rural and blue-collar populations — that hadn’t voted Republican in more than a generation.
Nationally, Mr. Trump won 61 percent of the rural vote and half of the suburban vote, according to exit polls, which showed Mrs. Clinton won 60 percent of the urban vote.
“If you are looking to test a rural outreach model, Virginia is not your test case; neither is New Jersey,” Mr. Kidd said, alluding to the other gubernatorial race this year. “I think Democrats are going to have to look to some of the Midwestern states that they lost, like Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. I don’t think it is Virginia anymore. Virginia seceded from the South in 2016.”
The rural-urban divide has emerged in Virginia this year, according to a Washington Post-Schar School poll released Thursday. It found that Mr. Gillespie leads Mr. Northam by 16 points among likely voters in Southwest Virginia, while Mr. Northam leads by 26 points in Northern Virginia, 22 points in Tidewater and 16 points in the Richmond area.
“You don’t have to carry the rural areas to carry the state,” said Mr. Boucher, who now works for a major corporate law firm on K Street. “You just have to do well enough to carry the state.”
That geographic split is fueling the candidates’ strategies, said Richard Cranwell, a Roanoke resident and former chairman of the Virginia Democratic Party. He said Mr. Northam’s game plan is to cut his losses in this corner of the state.
“I think elections are more about turnout now than they ever been in the 30 or 40 years that I have been doing politics,” Mr. Cranwell said. “Gillespie is trying to drive the turnout out here, and Northam is trying to cut the margin.”
“We would be glad to help him out,” Mr. Dowdy said. “A lot of people are moving Republican, and I don’t know why. To me, the Democrats have always been for the people, the working men.”
Mr. Griffith said Mr. Northam faces residual headwinds from the Obama administration’s clean energy push, which he said treated “coal like it is the dog’s accident on the living room rug.” The congressman said Democrats didn’t put thought into replacing the jobs lost in this region by that green energy focus.
To regain their footing here, Mr. Griffith said, Democrats must show they care more about delivering on their economic promises than they do the cultural issues that energize their base elsewhere.
“You know, it is easy for someone from outside the region to say, ‘Well, just leave the mountains, just move somewhere else,’” he said. “But most of the people who live in the mountains love the mountains. They are one with the land. They don’t want to leave to go to some flatland areas.”
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