BLACKSBURG, Va. — Virginia gubernatorial hopeful Ralph Northam looked like the perfect candidate to help Democrats regain traction with rural voters after a disastrous 2016, with his Southern drawl, upbringing in the state’s rural Eastern Shore and military background.
But despite substantial efforts in the far reaches of the commonwealth increasingly ignored by Democrats, Northam appears to be coming up short of a big improvement, according to his own internal polling.
Critics point to Northam’s stances on sanctuary cities and natural gas pipelines as possible reasons for the struggles. But the predominant issue may be that no Democrat, no matter their rural credentials, appeals to rural voters who have been turning away from the party for years — a big warning sign for Democrats hoping to compete in dozens of rural-rooted Senate, House and gubernatorial elections around the country next year.
It’s one reason why Republicans still believe that they can pull an upset in the Nov. 7 Virginia election, despite Northam leading in most public polling. Northam’s campaign believes he is doing well enough in the state’s rural corners to win, given Democrats’ strength in fast-growing Northern Virginia. Northam’s own internal polling in October showed Republican Ed Gillespie getting 49 percent to Northam’s 36 percent in the rural Bristol, Roanoke and Harrisonburg television markets — which President Donald Trump won 62 percent to 34 percent in 2016 (while losing Virginia to Hillary Clinton).
While Gillespie wasn’t hitting Trump’s heights, a potential warning sign of his own, Northam’s rural polling was little better than Clinton’s final result in last year’s presidential race — and below the levels President Barack Obama, John Kerry and Al Gore reached in the previous four presidential elections, when they lost the region but still squeezed more votes out of it. The trend has left Democrats more reliant on high urban and suburban turnout, and not every state has the same booming suburbs to counterbalance Democrats’ rural losses. Rural Democrats worry the party still sees them as an unnecessary afterthought.
“We’re plain Jane,” said Jay Clarke, a retired history professor who briefly resigned from his post as Rockbridge County Democratic Chairman earlier this fall in order to protest what he saw as the state party’s neglect of rural areas. “And the temptress is Northern Virginia down to Richmond and Tidewater. And politicians are easily seduced.”
Matt Morrison, the co-executive director of the AFL-CIO-backed group Working America, has helped lead Democratic turnout efforts in Virginia’s southwest, targeting about 100,000 voters — including white moderates as well as sizable black and Latino populations in cities like Danville and Martinsville.
Morrison said canvassers in the region haven’t detected enthusiasm for Gillespie or Northam, who both lost rural areas to their primary opponents in June.
“Enthusiasm on both sides is low,” he said.
Democrats say that’s not for lack of trying on Northam’s part. Former Democratic Rep. Rick Boucher, who held a district in Southwest Virginia for 28 years before losing in the 2010 wave, said Northam is “doing a lot of what I recommended” in an essay in the journal “Democracy” outlining how his party could do better in rural areas. Boucher’s key lessons: Allow some flexibility on gun policy, focus on the economy and show up.
“‘Showing up’ means returning repeatedly and listening more than talking,” he writes.
Northam and his chief of staff pushed for the recreation of the party’s rural caucus, and he held over 100 events in rural parts of the state as lieutenant governor. He asked for rural Wise as the location of the third debate of the governor’s race.
“He’s sincere. He’s not slick,” said Toni Radler, chair of the Hanover County Democratic Party, which includes suburban and rural areas outside of Richmond. “And we kinda like that.”
The Northam campaign released a television ad earlier this month designed to appeal to rural voters, featuring Northam working to restore a 1953 Oldsmobile and explaining that classic car restoration has been a hobby of his since high school.
“I’m from rural Virginia, and when I’m governor, you won’t be forgotten,” Northam says in the 30-second spot.
Last month at a Blacksburg fundraiser for Chris Hurst, a local television anchor-turned-House of Delegates candidate, Northam attacked the “clown show in Washington” and said Gillespie needed to do more to condemn Trump’s flirtation with white nationalists in Charlottesville before he laid out his plans for the state’s rural areas. He wants to expand a University of Virginia branch in rural Wise County, make community college free for students in high-demand fields who commit to a year of public service and continuing increasing vocational training in high schools.
But there was one hot-button issue here Northam didn’t mention: the construction of two natural gas pipelines, opposition to which has united environmentalists and rural landowners.
In the Democratic primary, former Rep. Tom Perriello campaigned heavily against the pipelines, while Northam said a governor would have little power to stop their construction and avoided taking a firm stance for or against.
Asked whether Northam had missed an opportunity by not coming out against the pipelines, Clarke had a simple response: “Yes.” He said volunteers in Rockbridge County had asked for guidance from the Northam campaign on what to say if asked about the pipelines and hadn’t received a response. “That’s political malfeasance,” Clarke said.
Vee Frye, chair of the state party’s rural caucus, downplayed the pipeline issue.
“Ralph did what he thought was right,” she said, noting Gillespie’s support for both pipelines and Northam’s strong environmental record. “I think it’s a non-issue, I really do.”
Northam’s campaign cautions that the Democratic Party, which has lost rural voters over the course of decades, can’t expect to win them back in a single election cycle. They also expect Gillespie to underperform in rural areas, many of which he lost in the GOP primary, and think attacks on the Republican’s record as a lobbyist will not inspire high turnout there.
But Republicans, who hope Gillespie’s emphasis on barring sanctuary cities and protecting Confederate monuments can excite Republican voters in rural areas where he struggled during the primary, slammed Northam for ignoring the less-populated parts of the state.
“Ralph Northam has yet to offer any substantive vision to address the challenges facing rural Virginia,” Gillespie spokesman David Abrams said, noting Northam missed meetings of a rural economic development panel. “Northam’s inattention and bad policies will make things worse in some of the most economically challenged areas of the commonwealth.”
Some rural Democratic county chairs hold out hope for a resurgence, noting high turnout at recent events, which they argue shows Democrats’ reintroduction efforts are working. Boucher said 200 people showed up for an event in Scott County when he campaigned for Northam in the far western part of the state. Radler says the party has worked hand-in-hand with local parties to capture enthusiasm after the 2016 elections.
She said the party recently held an event in Beaverdam, roughly halfway between Richmond and Charlottesville, and had more than 100 attendees.
“Someone told me, ‘We haven’t seen this many Democrats in Beaverdam since the Voting Rights Act passed,'” Radler continued.
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