At a happy-hour gathering at Freddie’s Beach Bar, a gay tiki bar in Crystal City, the evening’s main dish was Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, the amiable pediatrician from the Eastern Shore who is the Democratic candidate for Virginia governor.
But many in the room, filled with liberal activists from deep blue Arlington and Alexandria, had chosen a very different item on the political menu in last spring’s primary, preferring to charge into the nation’s first major referendum on the Trump presidency by nominating a fiery progressive populist, Tom Perriello.
“Northam’s not perfect,” said Cragg Hines, a Democratic precinct captain in Arlington. Northam “sounds like he came from the Eastern Shore. He’s not somebody a lot of people here know. But right now, they only need to know one thing: He’s the Democrat.”
Now, in the final countdown to the Nov. 7 election, Virginians — whether Democrats at this gay bar in Northern Virginia, African Americans in Richmond or Trump supporters in rural Hanover County — face the question that may decide who becomes governor: Is this election a grand opportunity to send a message about America in the Trump era, or is it a parochial contest between two traditional Virginia politicians?
In the nation’s first hotly contested statewide race since last year’s presidential vote, neither Northam nor Republican Ed Gillespie is lighting any fires of inspiration. In blue, urban Virginia and rural, red Virginia alike, voters talk more about what they dislike about the other guy than about any affirmative bond with the one they’ll vote for.
If voters on both sides of the nation’s political divide feel disconnected from their party’s nominee, it’s not without reason: Both candidates seem out of step with their party’s more populist impulses. Northam is a gun-owning rural doctor who voted for George W. Bush for president — twice. Gillespie is a Washington political operative who once pushed for Republicans to embrace pro-immigrant policies.
And in an era of red-meat politics, both men seem uncomfortable reaching out to people eager for a sharp, confrontational approach.
Nine months into the most volatile presidency in modern history, some voters hunger for a return to normalcy and are ready to embrace a quiet style, but others still seek high-octane delivery systems for their discontent.
Just north of Richmond, Hanover County is a rural bastion of Republicans and tea party loyalists who supported Trump overwhelmingly last November, then doubled down on populism in June’s primary by supporting the anti-illegal-immigration firebrand Corey Stewart over Gillespie.
Now, Gillespie needs those Trump-Stewart voters as well as middle-of-the-road ones to turn out in large numbers — and he’s running a campaign that offers different reasons to join him: It could be because he’s the moderate who talks about his Irish-born grandfather and used to urge the GOP to become more supportive of immigration; or because he’s the guy behind those lurid TV ads about Latino immigrant gang members who “kill, rape, control”; or because they just want to stop a Democrat whom they believe wants to take their guns away.
Gillespie, Bobbe Scruggs says, is pretty much everything she doesn’t trust about politicians. “Gillespie is establishment,” said Scruggs, an 88-year-old retired administrative assistant who was excited about Stewart in the primary and now dutifully attended a picnic for Gillespie in Beaverdam. “He hasn’t said one word about Trump. It’s a hold-your-nose vote, but I have to vote for him. We don’t want that goddamn Northam.”
Gillespie isn’t exactly what George Poffenberger is looking for, either. Poffenberger, 60, is a self-employed insurance agent in Beaverdam, where a convenience shop sells guns and where a sign put up by a local tea party reads: “Congressmen Should Wear Suits Like NASCAR Drivers So We Can ID Their Corporate Sponsors.”
Gillespie is “an insider; he was a lobbyist,” Poffenberger said of the candidate he will nonetheless vote for. “I voted for Trump because he was an outsider.” He will cast his ballot for Gillespie because he believes Northam is a threat to the Second Amendment. “You’re talking about the lesser of two evils,” he said.
That attitude is prevalent on the Democratic side of the ledger too.
At Freddie’s bar, Glenn Boledovich, a federal worker who lives in the Delray section of Alexandria, said he’s for Northam for one main reason: “He’s electable.” Boledovich said Northam is not as inspiring and progressive as some Democratic activists might like, but “I’m not a purist. He’s a doctor, a decent man, has principles. That works for me.”
To win, both candidates must appeal to voters beyond their natural bases. For Northam, that means connecting with, for example, the immigrants, federal workers and anti-gun liberals of Northern Virginia. For Gillespie, the challenge is to persuade Trump supporters eager to “drain the swamp” that a Washington lobbyist who ran the Republican National Committee is the man for that job.
Both campaigns argue that the other guy is mainly catering to his base, but their choices about where to appear and what messages to send demonstrate that both are trying to appeal at once to hardcore members of their own party and to independents and moderates.
Gillespie, a lifelong moderate who was once a Democrat, now gives speeches to business groups in which he touts his family’s journey “from immigrant janitor to West Wing of the White House in two generations’ time,” even as he also runs TV ads attacking Northam for voting to “let dangerous illegal immigrants back on the street.”
Northam has made a point of embracing the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party. “I’m not from Northern Virginia, can you tell?” he said at the gay bar, poking fun at his down-home drawl. He railed against the human toll taken by assault weapons, spelling out a vision of a state that welcomes immigrants, single-sex marriage, and transgender people.
Northam made a brighter show of his anti-Trump credentials during the spring primary campaign, when he ran a TV ad in which he called the president a “narcissistic maniac.” This fall, he has continued to criticize Trump: “I don’t see any goodness in his heart, any empathy,” he said in Crystal City last week. “As we say on the Eastern Shore, he lies like a rug.”
But Northam has also been careful to show that he’s a moderate Democrat who can make deals across the aisle, saying in a current TV spot that “if Donald Trump is helping Virginia, I’ll work with him.” Northam notes in speeches that although he seeks to restrict ownership of assault weapons, he “grew up hunting” and owns two shotguns. (Gillespie wrote in his 2006 book on campaign strategy that he does not own a gun; more recently, he has declined to say whether he still does.)
“We have a candidate who is uniquely positioned to bring over moderate, persuadable voters,” said David Turner, Northam’s spokesman. “A broad swath of the electorate who oppose Trump still want people to work with him.”
But how does a campaign simultaneously satisfy those people and those who seek total resistance to the president?
At a park in Henrico County where more than 400 parents watched their kids playing youth football, Northam remained on the fringes, waiting for his host, state Del. Lamont Bagby (D-Henrico), to bring him a few people to greet.
Northam’s reserve “is welcome for people who are not really engaged by Trump’s kind of energy,” Bagby said. “People see this as our first opportunity to provide some pushback against Trump.”
As Bagby, who is black, recruited African American parents to come over and meet Northam, some reacted to the candidate’s name with blank faces. The delegate tried this tack: “This guy right here brought Barack Obama out of retirement, y’all — you need to meet him.” That reference to the former president coming to Richmond to speak on Northam’s behalf worked nicely.
“With what we’re dealing with in the White House, people should be paying attention,” said William Moses, an emeritus coach of a youth team who plans to vote for Northam, even if he is so soft-spoken. “I guess it’s quiet strength,” Moses said. “But that doesn’t really matter. It’s all about this person in the White House.”
That perspective, of course, works both ways.
At Gayle’s Automotive Services in Beaverdam, the owner, Keith Gayle, 61, said he hasn’t yet decided if he will vote, because “I’ve gotten to the point where I’m not sure if it makes a difference. They’re not working for us.” But if he does, he is likely to go with Gillespie because “Northam is kind of scary.”
Gayle’s employee Dwayne Toney, 45, said he’d “probably” vote for Gillespie, mainly because of Northam’s advocacy for gun control. Toney embraced Trump’s outspokenness last year, but now thinks the president would get more done “if he’d shut his Twitter account.”
By comparison, Toney said, “Gillespie is a little humdrum.”
Gayle had an answer to that: “He’s not Northam.”
In a campaign featuring relatively bland personalities, both sides expect a low turnout, which makes it even more imperative to focus on getting their most dependable voters to the polls. So Gillespie has appeared with Vice President Pence in the state’s rural southwest, and Northam brought in Obama, who attracted a capacity crowd at a sports arena in Richmond.
“Every election is a balance between persuasion and mobilization,” said Mo Elleithee, a veteran Democratic strategist who worked on Virginia campaigns for decades. “Now, there are fewer persuadable voters than there used to be, so the campaigns are mobilizing their base voters.”
One tool both campaigns have turned to is fear, which can be a mighty motivator, especially in a race between two low-key personalities. Gillespie’s ads emphasize the dangers of gangs and crime, while Northam’s speak of Trump initiatives that could cut school funding, roll back environmental protections and “take away health care from thousands of Virginians.”
But on the stump, the candidates present a gentler version of themselves. In Chesterfield, Northam met a 91-year-old woman who allowed that she’s in reasonably decent health. “We woke up to see another day, so it’s a good day,” Northam replied, and though he lingered with her for a few minutes, he never mentioned politics or policy.
In an interview, Northam said his low-key manner is an asset in a time of blustery and mistrusted politicians. “I’m well-rounded,” he said. “We as doctors tend to be listeners. . . . I’m able to bring people from both sides of the aisle together.”
Gillespie’s campaign did not respond to requests for interviews.
Northam believes he can restore public trust in part just by being who he is: “Most people out there still trust their pediatrician,” he said. Voters, Northam insisted, “are longing for civility.”
But many Trump supporters say disrupting the system is more vital than finding compromise and comity.
At a Food Lion in Montpelier in Hanover County, Karen Lahocki, 57, a small-business owner, said she voted for Trump because she liked the way he talked. “He’s not an inside politician,” she said. “He said what people were thinking.”
This year, Lahocki is largely tuned out of politics, but she plans to vote for Gillespie simply “because he’s a Republican. I’m just not voting for any Democrat.”
Voter behavior in an untraditional year is especially difficult to predict, political strategists in both parties warned. Gillespie and Northam “both reflect traditional Virginia politics,” Elleithee said. “They’re not so much dull as traditional. Neither guy represents the extreme of their parties. And in this media environment, traditional doesn’t get rewarded.”