AGAINST THE GRAIN

Political Moderation Makes Comeback in 2017

Two of the most prominent candidates this year are finessing their bases in an effort to win over independent suburban voters.

Republican candidate for governor Ed Gillespie at his victory party on June 13 in Richmond, Va. Gillespie beat state Sen. Frank Wagner and Corey Stewart in the primary.
AP Photo/Steve Helber
June 18, 2017, 6 a.m.

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.

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