A rainy get-out-the-vote rally in Fairfax on Saturday night was a fitting coda to a rough week for Virginia Democrats.
Virginians finally head to the polls on Tuesday in what’s become a neck-and-neck governor’s race. Several events in the homestretch have highlighted Democratic divisions and foreshadowed some of the challenges that candidates are likely to face in next year’s midterms – even if Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam ultimately wins.
Organizers set up a beautiful backdrop outside the Fairfax County Democratic headquarters. They hoped a crowd of 500 would fill the parking lot. Only about 100 braved the elements.
At the end of a day with surrogate events around the state, the crowd waited patiently for speakers to arrive from other engagements. Rather than a normal program, because of the rain, the politicians simply spoke as they got there – regardless of their rank. While they waited, speakers blasted the song “I’ve got stamina.”
Tim Kaine, who could have been elected vice president one year ago but now faces a potentially competitive race to stay in the Senate next year, said that Virginia needs to elect “a healer, not a divider in chief.”
Just hours before he took the stage, news broke that the former interim chair of the Democratic National Committee wanted to drop him from the ticket last fall. Donna Brazile’s scorched-earth tell-all comes out on Tuesday, the same day as the election. But nuggets have been trickling out ahead of time. The Washington Post’s Phil Rucker reported Saturday afternoon that Brazile seriously contemplated setting in motion a process to replace Hillary Clinton as the party’s nominee with then-Vice President Joe Biden after she fainted during a Sept. 11 memorial service. Complaining that the “anemic” campaign had taken on “the odor of failure,” Brazile also writes that she wanted to replace Kaine with Sen. Cory Booker, N.J.
Around the time Kaine spoke in Fairfax, more than 100 former senior Clinton aides issued an open letter decrying the book. The senator left swiftly after his speech, and his spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment on Sunday about Brazile’s book.
Outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who can serve only one term under Virginia law, called the publication date of Brazile’s book “very bad timing.” “It’s regrettable that Donna thought this was the time she should come out with this complaint,” the former DNC chair said Friday night on MSNBC.
The book may not actually keep anyone home, but it underscores the tensions and mistrust that exist between the party establishment and the progressive wing of the party that Bernie Sanders appealed to last year. Former congressman Tom Perriello, D-Va., who lost to Northam in the June primary and has campaigned for him this fall, pleaded for unity on social media – which was dominated for much of the weekend by buzz about Brazile’s book:
Perriello tweeted: “Hey pundits, instead of reliving 2016 how about applying lessons to 2017. VA votes in 3 days with huge stakes for schools, env, rights.”During a live interview on MSNBC, anchor Katy Tur repeatedly pressed Northam, the Democratic candidate, about Brazile’s book. “The Democratic Party is not very popular, and there is concern that the progressive wing is going to rip apart from the establishment wing,” she said. “Are you concerned that you could be the first potential victim of that rift?”
“No, Katy,” Northam said. “We’re unified in Virginia. ... I have fire in the belly.”
But, Tur replied, former Democratic Gov. L. Douglas Wilder hasn’t endorsed him. “That’s up to Gov. Wilder,” said Northam, “and he’ll make that decision at the appropriate time.”
At an event Thursday evening in Richmond, Wilder criticized the Northam campaign for not including the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, on some of its literature.Environmental groups are angry at Northam for declining to condemn two natural gas pipelines planned in rural parts of the state, but trade unions like these pipelines because they mean jobs. Fairfax, who is on the ballot separately from Northam, is an outspoken critic of the projects. As a result, some unions have declined to support him.
The Laborers’ International Union of North America asked the Northam campaign last month to print fliers that omitted Fairfax, who is African American, so they could be distributed to members. Fairfax called this “a mistake,” and Northam’s campaign quickly apologized. But not before Quentin James, the founder of Collective PAC, which supports black candidates, including Fairfax, said “it reeks of subtle racism, if not a tone deafness about how we are going to win in November.” (African Americans make up 20 percent of the Virginia electorate.)
Wilder, who became the nation’s first elected black governor in 1989, said that he hasn’t spoken with Northam in months. The 86-year-old has endorsed Fairfax but not Northam. “Justin, in my judgment has not been dealt a good hand,” he told The Richmond Times-Dispatch after the Thursday forum.
Adding insult to injury: Democracy for America, a liberal activist group that was founded by Howard Dean after his 2004 presidential campaign, announced Thursday night that it is no longer doing “any work to directly aid” Northam’s campaign after he announced that he’d ban sanctuary cities if one ever appears in Virginia. It represented a shift from his earlier position.Charles Chamberlain, executive director of the Vermont-based group, said the Northam campaign was running “the same old, broken, and racist playbook that lost Democrats over 1000 elected offices since 2008.” The group had never actually endorsed Northam in the first place, so they couldn’t un-endorse him, though volunteers have been making some phone calls to help down-ballot candidates.
Dean, a former DNC chair, distanced himself from the group’s statement:
Dean tweeted: “I Hope this is inaccurate because it is an incredibly stupid thing to say and deeply discredits the organization which I founded.”
Another left-leaning outside group, meanwhile, ran a television ad to try to gin up Latino turnout for Northam. But it backfired. The Latino Victory Fund released a commercial last week that depicted four minority children running away from a pickup truck sporting a bumper sticker for Republican candidate Ed Gillespie and flying a Confederate flag. Northam declined to condemn the ad, but it was taken down after a pickup truck plowed down pedestrians in New York City in an apparent act of terrorism.Some in the party establishment feel that outside groups like DFA, and to a lesser extent LVF, are more interested in trying to raise money and build their own profiles than win elections. The Latino Victory Fund was only going to spend a paltry $30,000 to run the spot on Hispanic TV. DFA was not doing anything significant in Virginia until it decided to decry its party’s nominee. When you load the press release on their web site, a pop up tries to get you to sign up for their email list (i.e. fundraising solicitations). Republicans experienced similar problems in 2010, when scores of “tea party” groups popped up and attacked GOP incumbents for being insufficiently anti-Obama (because that raised the most money).Alluding to all the controversies during the Saturday night rally, Fairfax – the nominee for lieutenant governor – warned activists against getting distracted by “petty arguments.”And he offered an extended Star Wars analogy. “One of my favorite scenes was at the end when they were making that final run on the Death Star,” he said. “The X-wing fighters, the good guys, were going to do what they needed to do. It was chaos all around. Ships were exploding. Darth Vader came in. Someone said earlier that this means Donald Trump is going to come into Virginia, and then a woman said that’s an insult to Darth Vader. Which I thought was pretty clever! Anyway, there was so much chaos, but when they get to the final run ... they heard two things in their earpiece, ‘Stay on target!’ Stay on target! Stay on target!’ Because they wanted to keep them focused even though everything else was going on around them. Then when the computer started malfunctioning ... and the rain started, and it kept coming down harder and harder, they said in his earpiece, ‘Use the force.’“I want you to stay on target,” Fairfax said. “Do not let them divide us. Every time they try, stay on target. When the rain is soaking your clothes, when you are exhausted and you can’t move another inch, I want you to use the force and find that energy... We need you to bring people out to the polls like our lives depend on it – because they do.”
A lot has been written about how hard it is for Republican candidates to thread the needle vis-à-vis President Trump, but Democrats have their own problems that shouldn’t be discounted. They face a trickier balancing act going into 2018 than their GOP counterparts did vis-à-vis Barack Obama in 2010.Many liberals have grumbled that the mild-mannered Northam is too low key and too moderate (he voted twice for George W. Bush and almost switched parties a decade ago). He’s faced intense pressure from the professional left to attack Trump harder – even though polls and focus groups show that’s not necessarily an effective message with independents.
To be sure, Trump is deeply unpopular. His approval rating is 38 percent among likely voters in our latest Virginia poll. But a lot of anti-Trump voters don’t want to hear only about the president. Northam allies note that Clinton tried to make the 2016 campaign a referendum on Trump – and lost.
Northam has struggled to find the right balance. Before the June primary, Northam ran ads calling Trump a “narcissistic maniac.” Then, for a long stretch, he ran commercials that mildly criticized the president while simultaneously promising to work with him when it’s good for Virginia. Northam is closing his campaign by going back to some of the harder-edged, anti-Trump broadsides he used earlier. One ad accuses Gillespie of supporting Trump’s plans to take money from Virginia public schools, weaken clean air and water protections and take away health care from Virginians. “Ed Gillespie won’t stand up to Donald Trump because Ed’s standing right next to him,” a narrator says.
Democratic strategist Carter Eskew, who ran the advertising operation for Al Gore in 2000, criticizes Northam’s commercials in a blog post for not having a clear message: “Based on the dozens of ads I saw this weekend (unlike many viewers, I actually pay close attention to them), Gillespie has a clear strategy and messaging to support it. . . . Meanwhile, Northam seems stalled with less than a week to go. Based on his ads, his strategy seems defensive and soft. In one ad, he finally responds to Gillespie’s charges that he is weak on crime, which is a fine example of the political rebuttal genre, but not where you want to be at this point in a campaign. ... His positive ads tout his experience as an Army doctor and civilian pediatrician and links his love for children to wanting to build a better future for them. He will need a large gender gap to win, but I’m not sure that in these selfish and uncertain days, people are willing to wait for their children to grow up for things to get better, especially when Gillespie tells them he’ll cut them a check right now.”
One big problem for Democrats is the I-word: Impeachment. Winning the House next year will require Democratic candidates, in many districts, to win over a considerable number of independents and even Republicans who voted for Trump in 2016. Floating impeachment may gin up the far left, but this is not an effective message to make inroads with new voters. Just ask the Republicans who went all-in on impeaching Bill Clinton how the 1998 midterms went.To the annoyance of Democratic leaders like Nancy Pelosi, liberal activists like Tom Steyer continue to run TV ads calling for Trump’s impeachment.
The House minority leader said Sunday that Democrats are not going to push for impeachment if they win control of Congress next year. “It’s not someplace that I think we should go,” Pelosi said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “I believe that whatever we do, we have a responsibility to first and foremost to unify the nation.”