Earlier this year, a young former Democratic Hill aide galvanized his party with his run for the House of Representatives. Jon Ossoff would lose his race to fill Rep. Tom Price’s vacated seat in Georgia but not before raising millions of dollars from donors across the country and becoming the belle of the ball for many progressive organizations.
Months later, the biggest electoral contest of the calendar year is fast approaching as Virginia’s Lt. Governor Ralph Northam squares off against former RNC Chair Ed Gillespie to take over the governor's mansion in the commonwealth. And far more is as stake than a singular congressional seat—from the future of Medicaid expansion in the state to abortion rights and the ability to shape the redrawing of congressional districts after the 2020 Census.
But none of the enthusiasm that bubbled around Ossoff’s long-shot bid is apparent around Northam. With just a month to go before the vote, Democratic operatives working on the race and those closely following it are more openly panicked that complacency has set in.
“The thing that’s insane to me is there are more congressional seats [at play] in the Virginia governor's race than there are in Georgia and the same is true in 2018 for Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida and Michigan too,” said Jared Leopold, Communications Director for the Democratic Governor’s Association. “In order to win back Congress for a decade to come you will need to win governors’ races.”
It is a truism of the Democratic Party that their voters and donors find far more interest in federal elections than state and local ones. But in the aftermath of the 2016 bloodbath, when the party was finally forced to reckon with the losses it had endured during the Barack Obama era, a concerted effort was made to rebuild from the ground up. Resources were devoted towards statehouse contests. Groups were launched to fight gerrymandering efforts and recruit local candidates, and pledges were made to prioritize gubernatorial contests as much as congressional ones.
In 2017, there are two such elections: the governors’ races in New Jersey and Virginia. While the former appears to be a drama-free cakewalk for Democrats, the latter is—perhaps unexpectedly—quite close. A Washington Post poll released on Thursday had Northam up by 13 points over Gillespie. But three Democratic sources have told The Daily Beast that Northam’s internal campaign polling has the race within the margin of error, and not at the outer edges of that range.
Despite that, little attention has been paid to Northam by Democrats beyond Virginia. Just eight percent of donations to his campaign have originated from outside of the state or nearby Washington D.C., according to data from the Virginia Public Access Project. In 2013, that number was 35 percent for current Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe who, admittedly, had a larger fundraising network from his years as a party operative. For Ossoff, it was almost entirely the inverse: just 14 percent of his donors were from within his home state
Northam has had little grassroots enthusiasm too. Of the $12.6 million he had raised through the end of August, a mere $478,000 had come from people giving $100 or less. Part of that is owed to Virginia’s wild-west campaign finance system, where donors can write checks for unlimited amounts. But some of it, operatives fear, reflects a lack of interest and enthusiasm among the very activist community that pledged not to ignore state races anymore.
“We have had this conversation forever,” said Colm O'Comartun, the DGA’s former executive director. “People do not understand the role governors play in national politics. We have seen at the DGA for years people spend amazing amounts of money on congressional and senate races even though it won’t make as much difference to their stated goals… and yet they will still slavishly give to DCCC and DSCC. I’m not criticizing DCCC and DSCC. It’s just the reality.”
Privately, Democratic operatives in and around the state say Northam isn’t blameless for the lack of enthusiasm. The Lt. Governor has a folksy, small-town doctor approach to campaigning that has worked well for other Democrats who run statewide in the past but seems out of place for the age of Donald Trump and doesn’t exactly elicit passionate devotion.
Northam has stuck to the progressive platform that he outlined during the primary—a $15-an-hour minimum wage, criminal justice reform, and debt free college—and he’s taken stances that count as political brave in the commonwealth, such as calling for the relocation of Confederate statues. But he also has tried to sand down the dramatic edges, including running an ad in which he said he’d opportunistically work with Trump, a man he previously called a “narcissistic maniac.”
Northam also hasn’t engaged the online progressive community as much as some Virginia Democrats had hoped, having chosen to forgo speaking (even by telecast) to the Netroots Nation audience this year. But in fairness to Northam, numerous Virginia Democrats noted, not everyone has engaged him back.
While groups like League of Conservation Voters, Everytown for Gun Safety, NextGen America, DailyKos, and Planned Parenthood are all pouring money into the race or fundraising on Northam’s behalf, Our Revolution, the progressive political action organization birthed from Senator Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign, has stayed notable silent. The organization endorsed Northam’s opponent, former Rep. Tom Perriello, during their primary. And then, as one operative put it, they “went completely dark.”
Diane May, a spokesperson for Our Revolution, told The Daily Beast that they had not endorsed Northam because a request to do so had not been made. "All of our endorsements are based on the recommendation of the local groups and he was not submitted for an endorsement," she emailed.
Perriello, who has been barnstorming the state on behalf of state house candidates running down ticket, noted that there has been “unprecedented support from pop-up groups and the Democratic National Committee in taking these races seriously.” But, he acknowledged, “there is still progress that needs to be made to connect and acknowledge the importance of state and local races with the actual resources going to state and local races.”
Northam remains well positioned to win. He enjoys a surprising cash-on-hand advantage. Democrats proved, during the primaries, that they were more eager to vote than Republicans. And Gillespie’s recent ad—which accuses Northam of allowing MS-13 gangs to roam through the state because he supports sanctuary cities—has the faint stench of desperation (which isn’t to say it won’t work).
“We feel good about the state of the race and where we stand,” said Northam’s spokesman, David Turner. “We are taking nothing for granted and campaigning like we are 10 points down and will continue to bolster our GOTV operation and make it clear to voters the distinct choice they have in this election.”
The party has also made concrete investments in the race, with the DNC sending $1.5 million to the Democratic Party of Virginia to hire an additional 40 field organizations. And the expectation is that national enthusiasm will rise as the election nears. Former President Barack Obama is slated to hit the trail for Northam. And former Vice President Joe Biden is set to go in the next few weeks, a Biden aide told The Daily Beast.
But veterans of Virginia elections past are nervous that the party is too confident that things will simply fall into place. In 2014, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) appeared to be cruising to a re-election in the weeks leading up to the vote, only to have to endure a nail-biter. Warner won that race by less than 20,000 votes. His opponent was Gillespie.
“If Democrats don't go all in on this race, they may regret it on the morning after when we wake up to Trump's self-congratulatory tweets about his big victory,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic operative who has worked extensively in Virginia. “Winning Congress in 2018 starts with winning Virginia in 2017."