NORFOLK, Va. — Democratic activists expect a surge in black political engagement fueled by backlash to this summer’s violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville could tip the scales in Tuesday’s Virginia gubernatorial race.
Black voter turnout rates have been down around the country in the post-Obama era, from the 2016 presidential election through a string of special elections in 2017. It has been a long-standing source of concern for Democrats in Virginia, where up to one in five voters in recent elections has been black and where some have criticized Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam’s outreach to black voters.
But amid a toxic political environment, activists going door-to-door say they have seen African-American interest in voting spike since the summer, when low engagement alarmed Democratic pollsters hoping to elect Northam over Republican Ed Gillespie. Turnout already shot upward in heavily black areas during the Democratic primary, compared with the last contested primary in 2009, and Northam won big in those regions in June. Since then, black political groups have run a steady stream of radio and digital ads invoking Charlottesville and inequality in the criminal justice system, including NFL players’ protests of the issue. And they are talking with voters one-on-one in Norfolk and other African-American population centers to make a personal case about voting this year.
“They feel that it’s not politics as usual,” said Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of BlackPAC, which has been working with the Northam campaign to turn out African-American voters in Hampton Roads. “They know that something else is going on here.”
When BlackPAC first polled voters of color in the state in August, what it found concerned it. The percentage who said they were extremely likely to vote was in the high 60s, and Northam was trailing Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s 2013 performance among voters of color.
But voters also said the political environment scared them. Fifty-four percent of black voters said they felt minorities were under attack, and 73 percent agreed with a statement that voting would “send a resounding message to [President Donald] Trump.”
Framing a vote as a way to stand up to racism increased willingness to turn out. Now, nearly 90 percent of those contacted by BlackPAC during door-to-door canvassing are willing to sign a pledge card to vote, and organizers said Gillespie’s ads accusing Northam of trying to “erase history” and take down “our statues” are part of the reason why.
As a BlackPAC canvasser went door-to-door in a majority-black Norfolk neighborhood on Halloween, voters mentioned crime, support for public housing, voting rights and the unfair criminal justice system as reasons they would be voting this year. But one issue loomed above all. Sharon Williams, a disabled middle-aged woman, mentioned how her mother used to talk about the Ku Klux Klan when she was growing up. Williams thought the stories were just to scare her, until one day she saw some hooded men drive down her street.
“They’re trying to start that all over again,” Williams said.
Democratic National Committee Vice Chair Keith Ellison, who recently campaigned with Northam in Prince William County, said he had a visceral reaction to Gillespie’s advertising promising to keep Confederate monuments up in Virginia.
“The people who erected them wanted to make a point about who mattered and who didn’t,” Ellison told reporters, noting many of the statues were built as African-Americans pushed for civil rights during the 20th century. “And so, my opinion? When somebody says they’re for keeping a Confederate monument in the middle of downtown, to me, that says ‘You are subhuman, you don’t have any right to do anything except serve others.’”
Ellison also said Gillespie’s campaign tactics, and Trump’s rhetoric, were alerting voters.
“When Trump makes false equivalencies about neo-Nazis and the KKK and when Gillespie stands up for the monuments, we all know what that means,” Ellison said.
BlackPAC’s ads in Virginia have also addressed Charlottesville directly, both on the radio and online. Another group, CollectivePAC, has run digital ads invoking former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who is alleging NFL owners colluded not to sign him following his protests of police brutality last year.
“The first time I saw those people in Charlottesville trying to intimidate people of color, it made me angry,” a female narrator says in one of BlackPAC’s radio ads. “Trying to take away our voice. Then when they came back, it made me determined. No one is going to take away my voice.”
BlackPAC’s closing-argument ad uses images of the violent protests in Charlottesville and the civil rights movement.
“White supremacy stormed into Charlottesville and is being used for political gain,” a female narrator says in the 30-second ad. “We’ve fought too hard for progress to watch it pushed back in the name of Making America Great Again.”
That’s a much more direct tack than Northam’s campaign has been willing to take — a sore spot for some Democrats worried that Northam missed an opportunity to sew up the election by focusing his campaign on white moderates instead of African-Americans.
Steve Phillips, a major donor to the Democratic Party who is also a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said Northam should have talked more about the “most high-profile presidential-backed white supremacist march in this country,” and about affirmative action and criminal justice reform.
“If a majority of your voters are people of color, that should be your starting point,” said Phillips, noting a majority of the people who backed Hillary Clinton in 2016 in Virginia were black or Hispanic. “It’s an afterthought when it should be your first thought.”
Northam has occasionally struggled with his response to calls to take down Confederate monuments. He’s consistently said the decision should be left to localities but has indicated he would prefer to remove them and place them in museums. (Gillespie has said they should remain in place with additional context.)
And Northam’s outreach to the black community hasn’t always come naturally.
“All voters are important to me,” he said after a rally in the rapidly diversifying suburb of Prince William County on Tuesday. “I talk about things that are important to all voters, not just certain groups of voters. That’s not the way I look at Virginia.”
Phillips also said the Democratic ticket in Virginia hasn’t emphasized Justin Fairfax, the party’s young African-American lieutenant gubernatorial nominee. (Controversy flared last month after the Northam campaign dropped Fairfax’s image from some mailers handed out by a union that had declined to endorse Fairfax.)
But Northam’s campaign is confident in its outreach to black voters. In the three Virginia cities with the highest black population, turnout surged in the Democratic primary compared with 2009, when Democrats had their last contested gubernatorial primary. In Petersburg, which is three-quarters African-American, Northam won 72 percent of the vote as turnout jumped 80 percent. In Hampton City, Northam claimed the same percentage of the vote as turnout jumped 65 percent. And in Richmond, Northam earned 55 percent of the vote as turnout nearly doubled.
Back in Norfolk, voters did seem aware, even if they weren’t engaged in the campaign. Most took little convincing to sign a pledge card to vote on Tuesday. Kalen Gainer, a 20-year-old, said he hadn’t seen Gillespie’s or Northam’s television ads but was worried about the economy and the criminal justice system. Why was he voting?
“We need to keep everybody woke,” he said.
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