No raz­zle-daz­zle in Va. gover­nor race

CAN­DI­DATES KEEP AP­PEAR­ANCES CALM, EX­ACT Northam, Gille­spie fa­vor so­cial me­dia over big ral­lies

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY GRE­GORY S. SCH­NEI­DER

rich­mond — Repub­li­can gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­date Ed Gille­spie stands in shirt and tie with a man in a mil­i­tary uni­form, shak­ing hands, the gray con­crete of a Metro sta­tion un­mis­tak­able in the back­ground.

Demo­cratic ri­val Ralph Northam, wear­ing a suit, bends for­ward to greet two el­derly men in the lobby of a veter­ans care fa­cil­ity in Roanoke.

These are the images of Vir­ginia’s high-pro­file gover­nor’s race just six weeks from Elec­tion Day — in­ti­mate, con­trolled and more likely to be on so­cial me­dia than in news out­lets.

A year af­ter Don­ald Trump rode mas­sive ral­lies into the pres­i­dency, Vir­ginia’s con­test — the na­tion’s next big test of par­ti­san pol­i­tics — is be­ing waged on a smaller scale. Northam and Gille­spie over­came pri­mary chal­lengers who tried to cap­ture the pop­ulist move­ment of the Trump era with ral­lies, town halls and online events. But the can­di­dates who won the nom­i­na­tions haven’t fol­lowed suit.

“Nor­mally you’d have big ral-

lies at this point in the cam­paign,” said Stephen J. Farnsworth, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at the Univer­sity of Mary Washington. “I mean, this is mid-Septem­ber, when pub­lic out­reach is nor­mally pretty prom­i­nent in what the cam­paigns are do­ing.”

In­stead, Northam and Gille­spie have so far held events that are some com­bi­na­tion of small, friendly or stage-man­aged. Gille­spie’s cam­paign has de­clined to re­lease cal­en­dars of up­com­ing events to the me­dia, an­nounc­ing some events less than 24 hours in ad­vance or sim­ply pub­li­ciz­ing them af­ter the fact on so­cial me­dia.

Northam’s camp re­leases lim­ited cam­paign cal­en­dars, which gen­er­ally fea­ture small events, heavy on church and mosque ap­pear­ances and chats with com­mu­nity groups.

Na­tional at­ten­tion — and cam­paign cash — is fo­cused on Vir­ginia, which has the most com­pet­i­tive race for gover­nor this year. The only other gu­ber­na­to­rial con­test is in New Jersey, where the Demo­crat is a pro­hib­i­tive fa­vorite. Northam and Gille­spie are sup­posed to be chart­ing a course through the Trump-era land­scape for both of their par­ties.

But both men are cau­tious by na­ture, said Bob Holsworth, a long­time Vir­ginia po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist. “My sense is that nei­ther of these can­di­dates are all that com­fort­able with the pop­ulist per­spec­tive that is dom­i­nant in their own party,” he said. “It is such a con­trast to the rolling rock con­cert that the Trump cam­paign was just last year.”

It’s even a con­trast to Vir­ginia’s past gover­nor’s race, in 2013, which fea­tured two out­size per­son­al­i­ties in Demo­crat Terry McAuliffe and Repub­li­can Ken Cuc­cinelli — a bois­ter­ous brawl that McAuliffe won.

Nei­ther Northam, a pe­di­atric neu­rol­o­gist, nor Gille­spie, a high­pow­ered Repub­li­can im­age con­sul­tant, seems equipped to take on the raw emo­tion that has been un­leashed in pol­i­tics re­cently.

“You have so much anger in the coun­try and so many peo­ple will­ing to pub­licly ex­press that anger that politicians are wary of fac­ing an­gry crowds, so they re­duce the num­ber of pub­lic events and limit no­tice of those events to min­i­mize ugly en­coun­ters,” Farnsworth said.

That’s com­pounded by the fact that each can­di­date has an un­com­fort­able is­sue that dogs him at pub­lic ap­pear­ances.

In Northam’s case, it’s his re­luc­tance to con­demn the con­struc­tion of two nat­u­ral gas pipelines across ru­ral parts of the state. Northam says the projects will help cre­ate jobs and prom­ises to give them strict en­v­i­ron- men­tal re­view, but that in­fu­ri­ates hard­core en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists in the Demo­cratic Party base who view the pipelines as a catas­tro­phe. They tend to make a lot of noise at pub­lic events, even mo­men­tar­ily hi­jack­ing the stage at Northam’s pri­mary vic­tory party.

For Gille­spie, the dif­fi­cul­ties re­volve around Trump, who polls show is ex­tremely un­pop­u­lar with most Vir­gini­ans but who re­mains a hero to a vo­cal core of Repub­li­cans. Along with Trump come is­sues such as de­fend­ing Con­fed­er­ate stat­ues and play­ing hard­ball on im­mi­gra­tion, top­ics that don’t res­onate in di­verse and vote-rich North­ern Vir­ginia and that chal­lenge a cen­trist such as Gille­spie.

The can­di­dates haven’t held back from skew­er­ing each other over those and other is­sues. But they’ve avoided hav­ing to face un­ruly crowds or set­tings where they would field pointed ques­tions from the pub­lic.

In the cur­rent en­vi­ron­ment, it makes sense for them to trade big crowds for smaller gath­er­ings fo­cused on re­li­able sup­port­ers, said state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), who ran un­suc­cess­fully for gover­nor in 2009.

“Both cam­paigns are prob­a­bly do­ing what they need to do — they’re talk­ing to their vot­ers,” he said. “This is go­ing to be a turnout elec­tion. It’s go­ing to be very close, and it’s go­ing to be de­cided to­ward the end.”

The cam­paigns say that the fi­nal push is just crank­ing up.

“I think you will be see­ing larger crowd sizes as we get closer to Elec­tion Day,” Northam spokesman David Turner said. He re­jected the idea that Northam is wor­ried about fac­ing pipe­line pro­test­ers or any­one else.

“That’s silly,” Turner said. “This is a can­di­date who has been criss­cross­ing the com­mon­wealth talk­ing to thou­sands of vot­ers.” Some­times the best for­mat for get­ting out the mes­sage is through in­ti­mate con­ver­sa­tions, he said, but he noted that Northam has ap­peared at a few big events, in­clud­ing Demo­cratic U.S. Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott’s an­nual pic­nic in Hamp­ton Roads, which drew more than 1,000, and with hun­dreds of Univer­sity of Vir­ginia stu­dents at a foot­ball tail­gate party.

Northam does have the lux­ury of be­ing able to draw on pop­u­lar sur­ro­gates to help him work crowds. He cam­paigned with Sen. Tim Kaine (D) on La­bor Day week­end, for ex­am­ple, and he has sug­gested that for­mer pres­i­dent Barack Obama will lend a hand at some point be­fore the Nov. 7 elec­tion.

But Northam also spent much of the sum­mer rais­ing money af­ter an ex­pen­sive pri­mary cam­paign, some­thing that took him out of the lime­light for long

“My sense is that nei­ther of these can­di­dates are all that com­fort­able with the pop­ulist per­spec­tive that is dom­i­nant in their own party.” Bob Holsworth, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist in Vir­ginia


Gille­spie han­dled his pri­mary dif­fer­ently, mak­ing very few ap­pear­ances dur­ing the weeks be­fore the June elec­tion. He came close to los­ing the nom­i­na­tion but emerged with a fat cam­paign wal­let and hit the air­waves with ads while Northam was play­ing catch-up in fundrais­ing.

Cuc­cinelli, who ran out of money down the stretch of his cam­paign for gover­nor, praised Gille­spie for con­serv­ing re­sources. “It’s not been a wide, broad, burn-the-paths kind of cam­paign go­ing on,” Cuc­cinelli said. “[Gille­spie] isn’t out with a town hall a week or any­thing like that, but he’s go­ing to have the money to get his mes­sage out, and he’s got a good, sub­stan­tive mes­sage.”

Gille­spie’s cam­paign touts a steady stream of pol­icy pa­pers that the can­di­date has re­leased that haven’t re­ceived much news cov­er­age. But it’s a bit of a mys­tery why Gille­spie, a smooth pub­lic speaker who made a ca­reer help­ing politicians com­mu­ni­cate, has been cau­tious about speak­ing with re­porters.

For ex­am­ple, the North­ern Vir­ginia Idea Ex­change re­cently in­vited the can­di­dates to dis­cuss the seem­ingly be­nign topic of non­prof­its and their re­la­tion­ship with gov­ern­ment. Northam’s fo­rum was pub­lic, ad­ver­tised by the cam­paign and cov­ered by me­dia; Gille­spie’s was closed.

Gille­spie’s cam­paign and event or­ga­niz­ers ex­pressed some con­fu­sion about who de­cided to close the event.

Gille­spie’s cam­paign dis­puted that their can­di­date has shied away from pub­lic ap­pear­ances, not­ing that he ac­cepted 11 de­bate in­vi­ta­tions and that it was Northam who whit­tled that list down to just three.

“Ev­ery­day, Ed is cam­paign­ing tire­lessly in cities and coun­ties all across Vir­ginia. He knows Vir­gini­ans want to see and hear from the in­di­vid­u­als seek­ing to serve as their next gover­nor. That’s why he’s been so dis­ap­pointed by [Northam’s] re­fusal to join him in a full se­ries of de­bates,” Gille­spie cam­paign spokesman David Abrams said in an email.

The cam­paign cited a list of more than a dozen events Gille­spie has at­tended in re­cent weeks, in­clud­ing fairs in Washington and Ch­ester­field coun­ties and the Buena Vista La­bor Day Pa­rade.

But as sum­mer turns to fall, at least one long­time po­lit­i­cal ob­server is hop­ing for some old­fash­ioned cam­paign ral­lies. “Peo­ple want to see the can­di­dates in this elec­tion,” Farnsworth said. “They want to get a mea­sure of the man or woman run­ning for of­fice in a way that is not me­di­ated . . . and cam­paign ral­lies are a key place for vot­ers to get ex­cited about pol­i­tics.”


Demo­cratic gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­date Ralph Northam, left, watches as his ri­val, Repub­li­can can­di­date Ed Gille­spie, speaks dur­ing the first gu­ber­na­to­rial de­bate at the Omni Home­stead Re­sort in Hot Springs, Va., on July 22.

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