Ed Gillespie, Ralph Northam: Virginia centrists reaching out in polarized state
The blazing anger at the political class that shone through in the presidential election is still alive a year later in Virginia, where voters who are preparing to go to the polls Tuesday once again seem less than enthusiastic about the choices on offer.
At a time when Republican energy is being generated by its Trump wing and the Democratic Party’s energy by its left wing, Virginians have nominated candidates who hew closer to the political center.
Now Republican gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie is chasing the right, and his Democratic rival, Ralph Northam, is tacking left. Both are hoping to stir enthusiasm in a race that appears to come down to base voters.
“This matches up with what we see nationally: a public that has really lost faith with the political process so the vast majority of those turning out to vote are die-hard partisans,” said Patrick Murray at the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “Very few swing voters are in the mix.”
Both nominees defeated insurgents in the June primaries, where more than 540,000 votes were cast in the Democratic contest, compared with 365,000 votes in the Republican race.
Those vote totals could be a good omen for Mr. Northam, who has run further to the left than previous Democrats on issues such as guns, abortion and right-to-work laws. But he also has angered progressives for his position on “sanctuary” cities and his reluctance to oppose a pair of pipeline projects.
Mr. Northam, a pediatrician, former Army doctor and the state’s current lieutenant governor, has made peace with his primary challenger, former Rep. Tom Perriello, a progressive favorite who has served as a top surrogate for Mr. Northam. Former President Barack Obama also has campaigned for Mr. Northam in Virginia, the only Southern state President Trump lost last year.
On the Republican side, the rifts appear to be lasting.
Mr. Gillespie also hasn’t reached out for help from his primary opponent, Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart, who ran a Trump-inspired campaign and came within 1 percentage point of upsetting Mr. Gillespie.
Mr. Stewart said he had reached out to Mr. Gillespie at the behest of former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon but never heard back.
“His move to the right may be enough to get him over the line, but if he wanted to secure the election, he would have asked for a full-throated endorsement from President Trump and myself, and he would ask him to go out there and stump for him,” Mr. Stewart said.
Mr. Stewart said the Republican base is happy that Mr. Gillespie took a page out of his playbook but is bewildered by the candidate’s unwillingness to fully embrace Mr. Trump.
“I think it is going to hurt him on Election Day,” Mr. Stewart said. “I do have supporters — all of whom I have encouraged to go out and vote for Ed — but I still have supporters who just refuse to do it.”
A Washington Post poll released last week showed that fewer registered voters in Virginia are tuned into the race than they were four years ago.
Both campaigns, however, say enthusiasm for their candidates is through the roof and point to more than 161,000 people who have cast absentee ballots this year.
“I think there is mixed signals here. On the one hand, you certainly have anecdotal data of people being less engaged,” said Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. “On the other hand, we now have record early voting numbers.”
He is predicting voter turnout to fall from 41 percent to 45 percent.
“It is a mixed message, and I think it is why Northam, Gillespie and their campaigns and their allied groups are working so hard to make sure people don’t throw up their hands and walk away,” Mr. Kidd said.
The candidates and their surrogates fanned out across the state over the weekend.
“It is a fight,” Mr. Northam told supporters Saturday in Annandale. “This is close. It is not going to be a cakewalk.”
The Northam campaign said it was on pace to make 1 million phone calls over the weekend, had sent 1.5 million texts in recent days and had scheduled 31,000 door-knocking shifts — compared with 13,000 in 2013.
Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, hit the trail Sunday with Mr. Gillespie, who campaigned Saturday with Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Carly Fiorina, a Republican presidential candidate last year.
Mr. Gillespie pointed to polls that showed him gaining steam.
“We no longer just have momentum; we have the lead,” Mr. Gillespie said.
Mr. Northam, meanwhile, got a boost from Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine of Virginia, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who is barred from seeking back-to-back terms under state law.
In 2013, Mr. McAuliffe, a longtime friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton, defeated Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II in a race seen as a test run for Mrs. Clinton’s presidential bid. That sparked more intense interest in the race.
“Four years ago, the race was between a large personality, McAullife, and a controversial one, Cuccinelli,” said Mark J. Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government of George Mason University. “That contest drew a lot of attention given their differences on key issues, especially social ones.
“This year there are two conventional, mainstream candidates, neither a major attention-grabber in any fashion,” Mr. Rozell said. “Add to that the intensified focus on the national level and all of the drama surrounding the Trump presidency, and it is hard for the state-level campaigns to compete for attention.”
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.