WOODBRIDGE, Va.—Long before he opened the door to a canvasser, before he was bombarded with last-minute campaign ads, and the end of the election glossy literature, Ishmael Kamara had made up his mind. He was going to vote for Ralph Northam for governor in Tuesday’s Virginia election and, really, it had nothing to do with Northam at all.
“I think given that Trump is president, it skews us towards voting for Northam just because Trump is president,” the 39-year-old nurse practitioner told The Daily Beast at his home on a quiet suburban street here in Woodbridge, Virginia.
Kamara, an African-American man shared his thoughts at the doorway of his home as children played in the living room behind him. He said that he had seen the benefits of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, firsthand. The current administration’s efforts to undermine the law bothered him. And so, he would vote. Not necessarily in the affirmative but as a modest sign of protest against the direction his country was heading.
“Basically anybody that’s Republican is not going to get a vote from somebody in this house just because Trump is president,” Kamara said. “Bad idea to put that guy in office.”
Tuesday’s election in Virginia is, by any stretch, the most significant of the year. It pits Northam, the current lieutenant governor, against Ed Gillespie, a long-time Republican insider. Much has been made about the campaigns both have run. Northam is oft-described as likeable but charisma challenged; while Gillespie is viewed as an able politician who has dropped his centrist appeal to adopt a cultural warrior playbook.
But it is Trump, more than either of the candidates, who may well determine the outcome on Tuesday. The president’s unpopularity is a glaring issue in the commonwealth, the only southern state that he lost to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. Gillespie has attempted to keep a comfortable distance from what is perceived as a toxic administration, even as his highly-publicized ad campaign capitalizes on the same nativist, race-baiting themes that characterized Trump’s insurgent bid for the White House.
But distance can only be manufactured to a certain degree. The two men share a party. And that is proving politically problematic.
During a sunny Monday afternoon canvassing trip for Jennifer Carroll Foy’s campaign, a Democrat running for the House of Delegates District 2 seat, a number of voters expressed overwhelming displeasure with the current state of politics and the country’s leader.
A school administrator, who asked to not be named, said she was currently undecided in the gubernatorial race. But among the factors she highlighted in swaying her decision was how she struggles to explain Trump’s churlish social media use to her son.
Even some of the candidates running for lower office say that Trump has—at least partially— been determinative in their races. Hala Ayala, who is running for the House of Delegates in Virginia’s 51st district, said that she was compelled to enter electoral politics in part by Trump’s election. She’s a single mother of two, who worked as a cybersecurity specialist at the Department of Homeland Security for 17 years, whose life irrevocably changed last November.
“If you reflect on November 9, you’re waking up in an alternate universe,” she told The Daily Beast describing her time volunteering for the Clinton campaign. “I felt like I was under political depression if that’s clinically appropriate to say. It’s like where am I; who am I? You just found a different sentiment. You were disappointed, you were hurt, you were angry.”
Trump is, indeed, omnipresent here; his administration proving to be a prism through which each race seems to be judged.
Northam, a mild-mannered physician with a molasses drawl, has certainly taken notice of Trump’s unpopularity. But to the astonishment of national Democrats, he has struggled with how best to capitalize on it. Before the gubernatorial primary in the summer, he labelled the president a “narcissistic maniac.” But closer to the general election, in some of his ads he promised to work with Trump when it benefits the commonwealth.
During a Fairfax rally on Saturday night as an unrelenting downpour pummeled a crowd of about 100 brave citizens in ponchos huddled under umbrellas, Northam was sharper and more condemnatory.
“We’re watching a clown show that is embarrassing this country,” he declared, letting the rain hit his uncovered head and green rain jacket.
For Democrats who have crisscrossed the state supporting the Northam ticket over the last few days, Trump is the trump card. They believe that the president’s unpopularity, combined with mounting Democratic motivations over the tightening of the race, will bring Northam over the finish line.
“This is a very divided state. We need to sweep away that expectation,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) told The Daily Beast in a phone interview on Monday, referring to the expectation that Democrats could win easily. Wins for Democrats, he explained are “always by relatively modest margins. It’s almost like having two different states politically.”
“I vigorously resist the idea of Democrats panicking,” he continued. “Biting your nails being nervous absolutely, that keeps us on our sharp edges. There’s nothing in this current environment that would cause panic.”
But should Northam lose, it could very well plunge the Democratic Party further into psychiatric shock, forced to reckon with how they could bungle a race in which Trump remains so deeply unpopular. The party leaders seem to have recognized that possibility too. There have been hordes of surrogates—from DNC Chairman Tom Perez to Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.)—making visits in the commonwealth as the election nears.
Perhaps no one outside of the ticket itself has worked harder for Northam than his primary opponent, Tom Perriello, a former Representative for Virginia’s 5th district. The campaign has announced at least nine events that Perriello would be doing in the closing days of the election. And that’s in addition to the campaigning he has done for the lieutenant governor as well as the Democratic candidates hoping to win a majority in the House of Delegates.
Perriello is sharper on the stump than Northam. And, as good surrogates tend to do, he is more comfortable sticking the knife to the opposition.
“Gillespie has proven himself again to be a Machiavellian operative with no moral compass,” Perriello told The Daily Beast. “Nearly 100 percent of the radio ads have focused on the fear of brown people and embrace of neo-Confederate imagery in the wake of Charlottesville.”
Perriello too saw an environment in which antipathy towards the president would be an animating factor for turning out the vote.
“Trump did worse than any other Republican presidential candidate in my lifetime and his popularity has only plummeted since then,” Perriello said. “Virginians really have rejected Trumpism.”