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Why Democrats Are Freaking Out Over the Virginia Governor’s Race

It's not just that Ralph Northam might lose. It's that the consequences of a loss would be so dire.

Jim Watson/Getty

Practically every preview of Virginia’s gubernatorial race has been framed the same way: Is Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, about to mess this up? In October, The Daily Beast reported that Democrats were “panicked they could blow the year’s biggest race.” Days later, Vox explained how Republican Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman who has run a xenophobic shadow campaign focused on Confederate monuments and violent Latino gangs, could win the state. And there is good cause for alarm.

Northam’s lead in the RealClearPolitics average dropped below two points before rebounding (slightly) on the eve of the election; he had a six-point advantage a month ago. Never the most charismatic politician, there are concerns about voter enthusiasm, particularly after Northam reversed his position on sanctuary cities, which limit their cooperation with the federal government when it comes to enforcing immigration laws. (He was for them before suddenly coming out against them last week.) There are also worries about his ability to turn out young people—Bernie Sanders, who endorsed Northam’s primary opponent, has sat out this race—and people of color. Sure, the early voting numbers look great, but they did in the 2016 election as well.

For Democrats, the ghost of 2016 has been hard to kick. They see Northam limping toward the finish line, and they get flashbacks of Hillary Clinton. They register a perceived lack of enthusiasm and tightening polls as a recipe for disaster. Having gotten it so wrong in 2016, and already prone to freak-outs and self-flagellations, Democrats are responding by freaking out and self-flagellating. A win for Northam would help exorcise that ghost; a loss would confirm that the Democrats have a long way to go before things start to get better.

Democrats are expected to win Tuesday’s other gubernatorial election, in New Jersey, handily, in no small part because Governor Chris Christie thoroughly poisoned the GOP brand in the state. But the race between Northam and Gillespie is of much greater significance, given that Virginia, though trending blue, is still very much a purple state. The result will likely say as much about local concerns as national ones, but it will also inform the national narrative leading into the 2018 and 2020 elections.

That narrative has already been set. Gillespie, a consummate establishment Republican and swamp creature, has opted to distance himself from Donald Trump, while embracing Trump-ism. Gillespie has cast himself as a sensible, tax cut-driven Republican in public appearances, but his campaign has emphasized the kinds of cultural issues that helped propel Trump’s victory last November. Down the stretch, Gillespie has cut ads suggesting that electing Northam will mean turning over Virginia’s suburbs to the violent El Salvadorian gang MS-13. He and Virginia’s Republican Party have sent out mailers defending Confederate monuments and criticizing NFL players who have knelt during the national anthem.

That Gillespie’s campaign has been effective is unsettling, especially since he made the decision to run on racially divisive themes in the wake of Charlottesville. Gillespie’s primary opponent, the neo-Confederate Corey Stewart, applauded the move, saying, “It feels like my campaign, doesn’t it? I feel vindicated by it. What is it they say? Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” Even if Gillespie loses, Republicans across the country will still be tempted to his use his playbook in 2018 and beyond; if he wins, it is virtually guaranteed that they will do so.

Northam’s flip-flopping on sanctuary cities has only fueled the sense that opposing them is a winning issue. At the very least, it shows the extent to which Democrats have allowed Republicans to define the terms of the immigration debate. In Virginia, Republicans have painted sanctuary cities as lawless enclaves where violent criminals are allowed to roam free, which isn’t the case at all. (In New Jersey, Republican candidate Kim Guadagno has also seized on the issue.) Lost in this discussion is what sanctuary cities actually are—as well as the seemingly pertinent fact that Virginia doesn’t even have any sanctuary cities.

Gillespie’s campaign is a sign of just how normal Trump’s approach has become in American politics. The focus on Northam blowing the race reframes the question, and unfairly so. While Northam can be seen as a stand-in for the Democratic Party’s moderate, establishment wing, the race in Virginia ultimately says much more about the future of the Republican Party, and its turn toward Trumpism, than it does about the Democrats.

But there’s one crucial issue at play that will absolutely affect the future of the Democratic Party.

Whoever wins the race will oversee redistricting in 2020. Gillespie was one of the architects of REDMAP, which redrew the electoral map in 2010 in ways that dramatically benefited Republicans and helped them accumulate disproportionate power at the state and national levels, even in areas where they received tens of thousands of fewer votes than Democrats. Furthermore, his positions on felon disenfranchisement and voter ID laws would almost certainly result in voter suppression. Taken together, a Gillespie win would have an enormous effect on a state that has been reliably blue in recent presidential and gubernatorial elections.

There are reasons to believe that fears of a Northam loss are unwarranted. He’s consistently led in the polls, with the exception of a couple of outliers. This, despite the fact that Virginia’s off-off-year elections favor Republicans, whose electorate is older, whiter, and more likely to vote in non-presidential elections.

But if Northam loses, it will be a disaster. It would deepen the civil war that has raged in the Democratic Party since Clinton’s loss, with his critics likely claiming that his primary opponent, the Bernie Sanders-endorsed Tom Perriello, would have beaten Gillespie. But the real significance of a Northam loss would be a statewide seal of approval for Gillespie’s bigoted campaign, and a wave of voter disenfranchisement with the potential to set Virginia back by a decade.