WAYNESBORO — For one night, at least, it looked as if the conservative Shenandoah Valley was painted blue. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam packed the ballroom for a rally at Waynesboro’s Best Western Plus Inn and Suites Conference Center Monday night. He promised to a deliver a Nov. 7 victory for Democrats.
“We saw a campaign in 2016 based on hatred, bigotry and discrimination,” Northam said of Donald Trump’s run for the presidency. “People are standing up. They won’t sit back. We will win these elections.”
Northam, the state’s current lieutenant governor, was buoyed in five stops across western and central Virginia Monday by news that his lead in the race could be widening, according to several polls. A Quinnipiac University poll Monday recorded the largest advantage for Northam yet — a 53 percent to 36 percent lead over Republican candidate Ed Gillespie. Other polls, however, have showed a much closer race and a few have put Gillespie in the lead by four or five percentage points.
Most candidates, no matter the party, insist they pay no attention to pre-election polling — and Northam was no exception.
“The only poll I’m focused on is the one on Nov. 7,” Northam said in a post-rally interview. During his speech to fellow Democrats, Northam spoke about the economy, education and other kitchen-table issues.
“People want a job to support themselves and their family,” he said.
If elected, Northam said he would work to raise Virginia’s minimum wage above the current $7.25 per hour. He also hammered home workforce training for the high-tech, high-wage jobs.
Many of today’s jobs, he noted, don’t require a bachelor’s degree.
“For thousands of jobs now, you don’t need a four-year education,” Northam said. He said the “jobs of the 21st century” include those in cybersecurity, biotechnology and artificial intelligence. Virginia’s 23 community colleges offer much of the workforce training needed, he added.
Northam received a strong environmental endorsement from Robert Whitescarver, a Swoope resident, James Madison University professor and former U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service conservationist for Augusta County.
Whitescarver said Northam has helped restore Tidewater’s Lynnhaven River and revive the oyster population there. He said the candidate opposes fracking and believes in scientific-based facts and evidence.
“Ralph Northam is the clear choice for the environment, education and the economy,” Whitescarver said.
Former 5th District Rep. Tom Perriello, who lost a contentious Democratic primary vote in June to Northam, said the candidate has cared for the sick as a physician, and will be an inclusive governor. In an interview after the rally, Northam said he wanted to welcome all people to Virginia.
“We will have the lights on and the doors open,” he said.
Northam’s stop in Waynesboro was the fourth of the day — he was in Roanoke, Lynchburg and Charlottesville earlier on Monday — and came before another rally scheduled for later in the evening in Harrisonburg.
The Quinnipiac poll gave Northam lopsided advantages with non-white likely voters (72 percent to 15 percent) and with women, 56 percent to 36 percent.
James Madison University political scientist Bob Roberts said the election would still likely hinge on both candidates getting their bases out.
Northam needs the likely Democratic voters in Northern Virginia and the rest of the metropolitan areas to come out, Roberts said. Without those key groups, he added, it will be difficult for Northam to win.
Gillespie needs his base plus more conservative Republicans who cast ballots for Corey Stewart in last June’s Republican gubernatorial primary. Gillespie had been expected to cruise to victory in the primary, but Stewart shocked the party and the political establishment when he came within 1.2 percentage points of winning the nod.
Roberts said the Quinnipiac poll can only hurt Gillespie.
“This will demobilize his voters,” Roberts said.
Others aren’t so sure, though, with some analysts noting that Donald Trump’s base of support only seemed to grow stronger the more polls showed Hillary Clinton with a seemingly insurmountable lead last year.
Monday night’s rally also offered area Democratic House of Delegates candidates some exposure.
House District 25 Democratic candidate Angela Lynn promised to work to end gerrymandering. She said she is running against incumbent Del. Steve Landes, R-Weyers Cave, in part as a promise to fight for 25th district voters who feel they’ve been ill served by Landes. On Nov. 7, she said, everyone is equal at the polls.
“We are equal at the ballot box. It doesn’t know how much money we donate,” said Lynn, who said she wants to take “big money” out of politics.
House District 20 Democratic candidate Michele Edwards said her candidacy against incumbent Del. Dickie Bell, R-Staunton, has a been a seven-month odyssey of knocking on doors, going to churches and speaking to civic groups. She has spoken to Republicans and Libertarians, as well as Democrats.
“People are tired of the gridlock in Washington and Richmond,” said Edwards, who said she wants to reach across the aisle and collaborate with others in government.