Funny things are happening on the campaign trail this month: Jon Ossoff, the Georgia Democrat seen as an icon of the anti-Trump resistance, sounds like a moderate Republican as he campaigns in a historically expensive race for a vacant suburban Atlanta House seat. Republican Ed Gillespie, who barely eked out a primary win for the Virginia governorship this week, spent one of his first post-primary campaign stops at a Korean-owned martial-arts business where he talked about the importance of inclusivity and economic growth.
At a time when ideological polarization is near all-time highs, two of this year’s most visible politicians—one Republican, one Democrat—are running pragmatic campaigns designed to appeal to suburban moderates. Ossoff has a good chance to win a closely watched special election next Tuesday specifically because he’s avoided the highly charged anti-Trump rhetoric of national Democrats. Gillespie, who starts the Virginia governor race as an underdog against Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, has a fighting chance because he’s embracing a centrist strategy focused on wooing persuadable voters in the state’s suburban corridors. In a brief post-primary interview with National Journal, Gillespie even criticized President Trump’s divisive rhetoric, without mentioning him by name.
In interviews, strategists from both parties said the Georgia special election will hinge on how many usual Republican voters will cast ballots for a Democrat. Both parties’ bases are turning out at healthy levels, according to early vote tallies, suggesting Ossoff will need to win big with independents (which is likely) and peel off a small percentage of Republicans.
Republican strategists are encouraged that their voters are turning out at a higher level than in the first round, but the wild card is how many of them defect. “The Republican turnout model is much more advantageous than what we saw in the first round,” said former House GOP campaign chairman Tom Davis, who has been closely tracking the Georgia race. “Republicans are going to get their people out. The question is how much of a Republican bleed you end up having.”
The New York Times’s Nate Cohn estimated that Ossoff won between 15 and 20 percent of registered Republicans in the first round, a strong showing for a Democrat. If that number is closer to 20 percent for the runoff, he is in solid shape. And that dynamic would raise alarm bells for House Republicans, who are depending on a strong showing from their traditional voters to hold newly vulnerable seats in the GOP-friendly suburbs.
The suburban vote is even more critical for Republicans in Virginia, which is holding one of the two governor races in the off-year elections. Given the high Democratic turnout in the primary and the strong anti-Trump sentiment in the state, Northam starts out with an advantage. If Gillespie has a shot at an upset, it will be by overachieving in Northern Virginia, while maintaining enough support with a disillusioned base that views his establishment credentials skeptically.
In a Democratic-trending state with a motivated party base, running against the tide won’t be easy for the GOP. But governor races often operate independently from the national environment. To win, Gillespie will need to offer a compelling economic message that’s geared towards those very suburbanites who have tuned out the party.
To that end, he is working to reassure swing voters that he’s not a typical Republican, focusing on business-friendly policies and downplaying socially divisive issues. He’s hoping that Northam’s shift leftward during the competitive Democratic primary gives him some running room in the center. His Fairfax County residence should also give him a boost in the vote-rich D.C. suburbs against Northam, who hails from the Tidewater region.
Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell proved that Republicans can compete in the D.C. suburbs despite the state’s Democratic shift (he even carried Fairfax County in his 2009 race). Gillespie is embracing the McDonnell model in a more challenging environment. Even if he falls short, a competitive race would underscore that the pathway to victory for Republicans is through suburban, swing voters.
Ossoff and Gillespie, each in their own ways, are tacking toward the middle. At a time when Washington seems hopelessly divided, candidates running in the states realize it’s not enough to rally the base anymore. The road to victory is through the increasingly forgotten center.