We hear that Democrat Ralph Northam’s decisive win in the race for Virginia governor was extra extraordinary. Extraordinary in that he was a weak candidate.
Voters, the story goes, seriously rejected Trumpian politics, an especially nasty brew that Republican Ed Gillespie had channeled in end-of-race desperation.
Has anyone considered the possibility that Northam ran a smart campaign? A 9-point win is not a squeak-through. Furthermore, the notion that Trumpism without Trump is not a powerful strategy greatly overestimates Trumpism with Trump.
Do recall that Donald Trump lost to Hillary Clinton in Virginia by over 5 points. And that was 12 long months ago, before Trump proved how ineffectual and unpresidential he could be.
Northam clearly understood the first commandment of winning elections: Thou shalt not repel the voters.
Democrats prevailing in purple or even red areas of the country have found a formula for bringing more moderate voters over to their side. (Trumpism does get credit for turning many nonparticipants into voters.)
These savvy politicians are creating safe spaces for parts of the electorate that dislike what Republicans are doing but have felt culturally abandoned by Democrats. That’s why Northam denounced the ad by the Latino Victory Fund showing a pickup truck with a Confederate flag running over children of color.
Many white Virginians who are not particularly racist and were distressed by the recent right-wing spectacle in Charlottesville nonetheless feel tarred by such imagery. Those dynamics went completely over the head of the progressive Democracy for America. It abruptly rescinded its Northam endorsement. Meanwhile, Our Revolution, allied with Bernie Sanders, took its own whack at him.
Northam also said he is against sanctuary cities, which A) Virginia doesn’t have anyway and B) 80 percent of voters, including most Democrats, are against. Opposition to sanctuary cities mirrors opposition to illegal immigration, not necessarily to immigrants.
In a statement taking back its support for Northam, Democracy for America declared, “We refuse to be silent any longer and even remotely complicit in the disastrous, racist, and even voter-turnout-depressing campaign Ralph Northam appears intent on running.”
Some turnout depression. African-American turnout swelled Tuesday. And Northam took the black vote by 75 percentage points. Women gave him a 22-point lead.
Certain “progressive” groups, it appears, were willing to throw the election to Trumpism rather than back a Democrat who objected to messaging that, actually, was quite objectionable.
One recalls Larry David’s only funny line as recent host of “Saturday Night Live.” Impersonating Sanders as a contestant on a game show, he declared, “We’re gonna win this thing the Bernie way, which means if I lose, I’ll bring everyone else down with me.”
The audience laughed nervously. Many were no doubt aware that after his burnt-earth campaign against Clinton, 1 in 5 Sanders supporters didn’t vote for her.
Tom Perriello, by contrast, rose to the occasion. A Bernie-backed progressive who lost the primary to Northam, Perriello enthusiastically campaigned for the centrist Democrat. This show of unity may have contributed to the Democrats’ swamping victories in the Virginia House of Delegates.
Every activist group – on the Democratic and Republican sides – wants the party to be a reflection of itself. Northam understood that a party has to be a reflection of those voters open to its message. To win seats held by Republicans, Democrats obviously have to make room for people who formerly voted Republican, as well as get their natural constituencies to the polls.
Trumpism is losing big-time nationally, especially in the suburbs. Northam showed how a Democrat can prevail in a purple state. Suffice it to say, he didn’t do it by being a poor candidate. On the contrary.
Froma Harrop is a syndicated columnist and member of the editorial board of the Providence Journal in Providence, R.I. © 2017 The Providence Journal Co. Distributed by Creators Syndicate Inc. Follow her on Twitter @fromaharrop.