No razzle-dazzle in Va. governor race
CANDIDATES KEEP APPEARANCES CALM, EXACT Northam, Gillespie favor social media over big rallies
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.