FAIRFAX, Va.—As voters in Virginia head to the polls on a rainy, cold Tuesday, the events of three months ago, when a white supremacist rally turned deadly in their state, still linger.
This past summer, as violent protests erupted in Charlottesville, 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed by a car driven by a white nationalist, who promptly sped away through the crowd. It was a jarring moment, one that has seeped its way into the gubernatorial race in clear and profound ways.
There is the specific debate over what to do about monuments to the Confederacy, which sparked the initial Charlottesville rally and has since divided the candidates, Democrat and current lieutenant governor Ralph Northam and Republican Ed Gillespie. And there is the larger argument over how President Donald Trump responded to the violence that day, in which he equivocated about fault being witnessed on both sides of the debate.
For Democrats in Virginia, Charlottesville has become a rallying cry. For communities of color, it has become something more—a reminder about the necessities of political engagement and the specific toxicity of this era.
That certainly has been the experience of BlackPAC, an organization working in the state to turn out African-American voters, as it canvassed this past weekend. The group confronted voters who seemed hyper-engaged about the gubernatorial race. One older gentleman interrupted a canvasser before the pitch was even finished to say he was on board.
“He said ‘I’m going to let you finish but I want you to know that I already know what to do,” BlackPAC’s executive director Adrianne Shropshire told The Daily Beast on Tuesday.
Shropshire said that her group is trying not only to get voters engaged in this election but to understand the stakes of non participation in the future. What they hear at the doors, she said, is a mixture of policy concerns—from health care, economic issues and racial justice—and sheer horror over what happened in Charlottesville.
“The impact has really been to create this sense of urgency,” she said. “People are angry for sure. In some ways, when we talk to people on the doors, people are a little bit in disbelief that this is where we are as a country.”
A final November ad produced by BlackPAC highlighted imagery from the white supremacist event in an effort to remind voters of the stakes of the election. That mirrors some of the messaging the Democratic Party has used elsewhere.
“White supremacy stormed into Charlottesville and is being used for political gain,” the narrator says. “We’ve fought too hard for progress to watch it pushed back in the name of Making America Great Again.”
Whether BlackPAC and its affiliate organizations are successful in their efforts will depend a lot on the extent to which Charlottesville still resonates in the minds of voters. That, in turn, could very well determine the outcome of the election on Tuesday. In 2013 current Governor Terry McAuliffe earned the support of some 90 percent African-American voters. Northam likely needs to maintain that level if he hopes to defeat Gillespie.
In a September poll provided to The Daily Beast by the organization, some 73 percent of black and Hispanic respondents indicated that they viewed the gubernatorial election as a way of pushing back on Trump and a means to combat the white supremacists who marched in the commonwealth.
“54% of Black voters and 55% of Hispanic voters agree that ‘this year feels different, minorities are under attack, and it is more important than ever to vote,’” the poll results read. “73% disapprove of Trump, and the same proportion say voters of color ‘need to vote in record numbers’ to show the President and his followers that they will not be intimidated.”
That same month, the Black Progressive Action Coalition launched a $600,000 voter engagement program in the state, with canvassers spending five weeks knocking on doors in Norfolk, Chesapeake, Portsmouth, Hampton and Newport News—all cities with high populations of African-American voters.
In addition, BlackPAC launched a $500,000 media campaign to urge black voters to support the Democratic ticket. As of Tuesday, Shropshire estimated that the group had knocked on almost 50,000 doors and had over 10,000 conversations with voters in the commonwealth. And over 90 percent of the voters reached have pledged to vote.
While both of the gubernatorial candidates have tried to nuance their positions on Confederate monuments in the state, clear divisions remain. Northam wants to give local municipalities control over the matter but has sided with having them placed in museums. Gillespie, meanwhile, has called for keeping them up and he has spotlighted that position in paid advertisements hammering Northam. He also thinks it should be up to localities to ultimately decide however.
Polling suggests, and pundits argue, that the divide slightly favors Gillespie even as he’s taken on water for what critics deem to be a race-baiting gesture.
“Look, Virginia has changed a lot but there are a lot of places in the state where race is the kind of issue that will cut against a Democrat,” Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics told The Daily Beast. “Large majorities don’t want any statues removed and they seem very unsympathetic to the demands or requests made by groups who feel disenfranchised.”
But Democrats see a backlash brewing. And they believe that it is precisely what happened in Charlottesville that will turn some voters against Gillespie. It won’t just be because of a spike in minority turnout, either; but also because it will expose the Republican candidate to charges of shameless, even insensitive, pandering.
“This new Gillespie, I don’t recognize,” Sabato said. “He apparently is a social issues warrior. I never knew that. He’s presenting himself as the reasonable civil moderate in person and then he lets his TV consultants do all the dirty work.”