The Nov. 7 contest pits Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, a physician, Army veteran and former state senator, against Ed Gillespie, onetime aide to President George W. Bush and former head of the Republican Party. The current governor, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, is term-limited.
The stakes in Virginia are immense: Though Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won the state by five percentage points in 2016, Republicans typically are more likely to turn out in off-year statewide elections. Northam has led in most polls, but the race is close. A loss would be devastating after Democrats failed to capture any GOP-held seats in contested special congressional elections earlier this year that galvanized anti-Trump activists.
The next Virginia governor also will have a major say in the state’s next congressional redistricting. A Republican wave in statehouse elections around the country in 2010 — just prior to the last redistricting — has helped the GOP maintain a firm grip on the House.
Former President Barack Obama highlighted the importance of the Virginia race last week at his first large political rally since leaving office, urging Democrats not to get “a little sleepy” in the off-year election.
“I think that it’s great that you hashtag and meme,” the former president told a crowd in Richmond, “but I need you to vote.”
Northam bested former Rep. Tom Perriello, a populist favorite of the resistance who was backed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, in the Democratic primary. Sanders’ political operation, Our Revolution, recently endorsed six Democrats running for the state House of Delegates, but did not endorse Northam. Diane May, a spokeswoman for the group, said it can only endorse candidates recommended by local members and none in Virginia recommended Northam.
Some activists say it’s obvious that the liberal wing of the party isn’t as engaged in the governor’s race.
“We absolutely want to see them win, but that’s the difference between inspiring and driving a Democratic base to get out there for you and someone who you just want to win,” said Charles Chamberlain, executive director of the group Democracy For America. “If he doesn’t win, this will be why.”
Fundraising underscores some ambivalence.
Northam has raised $8 million more than Gillespie through September. He had $5.7 million cash on hand at the end of last month compared with Gillespie’s $2.5 million.
But Northam’s fundraising advantage is due largely to his in-state fundraising efforts, not to out-of-state activists pouring money in. Northam and Gillespie have each raised about $2.5 million from out-of-state contributors, not including Washington-based donors like the Democratic Governors Association and its GOP equivalent, according to nonprofit money tracker the Virginia Public Access Project.
And Northam hasn’t reported any donations from Democratic super donors like billionaires George Soros and Donald Sussman who largely funded his primary opponent’s campaign.
Still, others in the resistance say they’re working hard in the governor’s race and see no lack of enthusiasm. The prominent anti-Trump group Indivisible has sent three paid staffers to Virginia and recently asked its chapters across the country to organize phone banks to help Northam and Democrats in the Virginia state legislative races.
“We have folks who are clamoring to make the calls from across the country,” said Isaac Bloom, the group’s organizing director.
Northam spokesman David Turner said the campaign just came off a record-breaking voter canvassing last weekend and “there’s a lot of enthusiasm and excitement on the ground in Virginia.” He said Obama’s visit has helped highlight to out-of-state activists the importance of this race, particularly when it comes to redistricting.
Act Blue, which channels small-dollar donations to Democratic candidates, says that more than triple the number of people have donated to Virginia races this year as did in all of 2013. Democrats have gained six state legislative seats in special elections in Oklahoma, Florida and New Hampshire even as they lost the more headline-drawing congressional elections.
“We’re just seeing people plain engaged,” Act Blue Executive Director Erin Hill said.
The group Flippable has targeted five House of Delegate races in the state and expects to net as many donations as it did for Democrat Jon Ossoff in the Georgia special congressional election he lost earlier this year. Co-founder Catherine Vaughan said Democrats need to re-learn the importance of state elections after losing more than 1,000 state legislative seats and several governor’s races during the Obama years.
“Democrats kind of dropped the ball there,” Vaughan said, adding she worries that in the rush to win back the House in 2018, activists could lose sight of the importance of state-level wins again.
Michael Casentini, 41, a small business owner in Los Angeles, was devastated by Trump’s election and desperate for ways to fight back. In May, he wrote a $215 check to Ossoff as that race became a rallying cry for the anti-Trump resistance.
Casentini obsessively follows the news, so he knows there’s a tight race for Virginia governor next month. But he didn’t know the name of the Democratic candidate.
“People are tired, people are exhausted,” Casentini said in an interview.
But after talking about the Virginia race with a reporter, he said he realized he should make a donation to Northam. “That’s another one we liberals need to jump on,” Casentini said.
Riccardi reported from Denver.