Amid all the talk about Ed Gillespie’s exploiting cultural divisions to run competitively in Virginia, many political commentators are missing the big picture in the governor’s race there. Lieutenant governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, is leading in nearly every poll despite running a general-election campaign that has ignored the loudest, most-polarizing voices in his party’s base. He said he wants to work with President Trump when possible despite their many disagreements, he’s ignored environmentalists’ pleas to oppose the construction of a controversial natural-gas pipeline, and he’s called for localities to decide what to do with Confederate statues, instead of mandating their removal.
A former George W. Bush voter, Northam is running as a moderate Democratic pragmatist in the spirit of Bill Clinton—or recently-elected Gov. Roy Cooper, one of the most-prominent Democrats to win during last year’s Trump wave in neighboring North Carolina. And despite all the Democratic angst about the race tightening, his own campaign’s polls have shown him consistently ahead. The average of public polling shows that he’s leading by a healthy 6-point margin.
The real reason you’re hearing so much wailing from Democrats is because they fear that Northam could pave the way for a moderate revival within the party—that a victory would prove that the party’s candidates can win without being held hostage by the increasingly progressive base. In the primary, he handily dispatched former Rep. Tom Perriello, who ran well to his left and won the support of leading liberal activists across the spectrum, from senior Obama officials to socialist-minded senators such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. And since winning the nomination, Northam has resisted calls for his campaign to pander to the grassroots, to the point where they’re leaking unfavorable assessments of his candidacy.
A Daily Beast story this month, with a headline raising fears that Northam could blow the race, reflects the unease of party progressives. Focusing on anger from the party’s grassroots and attacking the candidate’s fundraising, the author wrote that Northam “seems out of place for the age of Donald Trump and doesn’t exactly elicit passionate devotion.” This, even though Northam has handily outraised Gillespie, is winning over more than 90 percent of Democrats in polls, and turned out a historically high number of Democratic voters to back him in the primary.
Another column, from a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress, accused Northam of having an “obsession with white voters” and argued that he could win the election without winning a single white voter if Democrats simply turned out their base. One exasperated Northam strategist told National Journal: “The clear lesson from 2016 is you don’t speak to every individual demographic group and tell them what they want to hear.” Northam’s campaign, indeed, has been a rejection of the Democrats’ reliance on identity politics.
It’s not just Northam who has ignored the most extreme voices in the party in favor of taking a pragmatic path. The Democratic Party’s two congressional committees, who have to cater to moderate constituencies in GOP-friendly states and districts, have been significantly outraising their Republican counterparts. House Democrats have recruited a deep roster of red-district challengers who helped set fundraising records in the most recent quarter. By contrast, the Democratic National Committee has been the hub of the anti-Trump resistance, and its fundraising has been abysmal under uber-liberal chairman Tom Perez.
The fact that the Virginia race is competitive shouldn’t be surprising. Despite recent Democratic gains in the state, off-year elections draw an older, whiter electorate than presidential years. Only once in the past five decades has a Democrat won the Virginia governor’s race by a double-digit margin (Gerald Baliles in 1985). Successful candidates from Mark Warner to Tim Kaine to Terry McAuliffe have run to the center, trying to appeal to moderate-minded suburbanites in the Northern Virginia suburbs.
To be sure, Northam isn’t the most charismatic candidate. He’s run a fairly safe campaign, content to avoid self-inflicted mistakes. But that reticence masks the fact that his campaign’s message is outspokenly moderate and contrary to the conventional wisdom of the Obama years. A Northam victory would be further proof that the best way for Democrats to win in Virginia is by hewing to the center.
The race was initially deemed the first big political test for Republicans in the Trump era. In reality, it means as much for the direction of the Democratic Party as it does for the White House. Trump himself hasn’t been the focus of the campaign, even though he looms large across the Potomac. But Democrats who want to defeat Trump could learn some valuable lessons on what it takes to win over voters who aren’t fans of the president but have grown alienated by their party’s hard lurch leftward.