It is now 7:01 p.m. Eastern time and the polls have just closed in the Commonwealth of Virginia. – Editor’s note.
Soon we will learn the outcome of the big off-year race in Virginia between Republican Edward Walter Gillespie, a lobbyist and veteran of George W. Bush’s White House, and his Democrat opponent, sitting Lieutenant Governor Ralph Shearer Northam, a medical doctor by profession. The sitting governor, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, is term-limited.
The campaign has been filled with the salacious drama we’ve come to expect from Virginia gubernatorial contests, most notably the hateful ad from the Latino Victory Fund, a Northam-allied political action committee, which implies that Southerners, conservatives, and people who drive trucks are racist murderers. Northam’s standing in the public eye has suffered because of the justified backlash against the ad which even the Washington Post editorial board called “vile” and “despicable.” Northam distanced himself from the ad but the damage had already been done.
I predict that Ed Gillespie will win, making good on his second chance after losing to incumbent Mark Warner (D) in the U.S. Senate race in 2014, by fewer than 18,000 votes out of almost 2.2 million cast.
There are three big strategic factors that I think will help the Republican beat the odds in this Democrat-leaning state.
1. Gillespie has been relentlessly aggressive
In maneuver warfare, the goal is to seize and keep the initiative, forcing your enemy to react to your moves from an unbalanced position. The same strategy works well in politics, and the Gillespie campaign has done an admirable job here. The campaign wisely began the final stretch by hammering Northam for his support for sanctuary cities and perceived soft stance on MS-13 gang violence, positioning itself well to escalate once the Latino Victory Fund ran its ill-advised slander piece. Team Gillespie pounced on the nakedly leftist overstep and has since dictated the terms of engagement throughout the always frantic get-out-the-vote (GOTV) phase.
The Northam campaign was cornered, backed into a weak defensive stance, spending nearly all its time refuting Gillespie’s attacks. This is not the look of a winning campaign. The Republicans deserve credit for this performance, as their candidates haven’t always moved so decisively to control the narrative — especially those candidates, like Gillespie, seen as more establishment-oriented in character.
2. The Democrats have played into Gillespie’s framing trap
For its part, the Northam campaign hasn’t responded well to Republican attacks, directly answering the charges instead of making a bold pivot to a topic of strength. Furthermore, they haven’t been helped by national Democrats. Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez doubled down in his defense of the Latino Victory Fund assault, agreeing with the attack ad’s claim that the Gillespie campaign and the candidate’s supporters are racists, while dismissing the horrified reactions of Virginia voters as “crocodile tears.” This response validates the GOP frame that the Democrats are all about vicious identity politics, and it further hamstrings Northam’s defense.
Northam has portrayed himself as a simple country doctor to the point that everyone within range of Virginia’s ad markets is ready to vomit, and yet that characterization doesn’t square with the big-picture perception of the Democrats as the party of naked tribal infighting, reinforced by Perez and the truck murderer ad. Do lots of normal voters hear and care about the DNC chief’s comments? Probably not. Yet they help explain how honest American voters increasingly see the Democrat Party. Anecdotal reports from canvassers, even in Democrat-friendly Northern Virginia, indicate that voters are disgusted by the hostile view the Left holds of those they wish to govern.
3. Serious nationwide GOP support for Gillespie’s campaign
The Republican National Committee made a mistake in 2014 in failing to aggressively back Gillespie’s U.S. Senate run, where he ran far closer to Democrat Senator Mark Warner than expected. Data analysis by Deep Root Analytics suggested an opportunity for a win; who knows what could have been with a late infusion of RNC cash. This time, the RNC has supported Gillespie’s candidacy to the hilt, as reported here by Seth McLaughlin of the Washington Times.
I can also tell you personally from my conversations and watching social media feeds that conservative activists in D.C. and Virginia are fanatically engaged, spreading the word online and knocking on huge numbers of doors. Especially after the Latino Victory Fund’s craven attack on honorable American citizens, the men and women who win victories with their energy stand motivated, and they sense a win. Gillespie will benefit from high-morale volunteers and ample resources with which to capitalize on his closing argument.
Virginia has been an increasingly tough nut for Republicans to crack at the statewide level.
Democrat Hillary Clinton won in 2016 by a comfortable 5.3 percentage points; contrast that with her nail-biting margins over President Donald J. Trump in New Hampshire (0.3 percent), Nevada (2.4 percent), and in the beating red heart of American progressivism, Minnesota (1.5 percent). Even though it’s a tough challenge, I believe that Ed Gillespie’s disciplined campaign, aggressive moves to dominate the narrative, and his strong support from the national GOP will be enough to put him over the top.
As always, time will tell.
These opinions originally appeared yesterday at Big League Politics.