Sweeping predictions time: Gillespie is going to beat Northam by a healthy margin, one that will be a repeat of Democratic fortunes in 2013 — with Northam playing the role of the ill-fated Ken Cuccinelli campaign.
Folks are starting to feel something shift in the atmosphere. Even Jeff Schapiro writing for the Richmond Times-Dispatch is noting that efforts to nationalize Virginia’s election after a string of “moral victories” for the Democrats is beginning to fall flat:
Many of the handicappers — and a few activists — mistook for momentum Perriello’s constant presence on social media and his ability to stir audiences of wistful Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders voters. Both rattled Northam, demanding he sharpen his message and spend, spend, spend — emptying his treasury of $8 million.
That means that more than advice, Northam needs money from those nervous national Democrats.
. . .
To win in November, Northam and his Republican opponent, Ed Gillespie — assuming each secures his respective base, perhaps an uncertainty for Gillespie because of Corey Stewart’s Trump-like renunciations — must still secure a hefty slice of the right-leaning independent vote.
That is becoming increasingly more difficult for Northam to do given the tow anchor progressives have placed upon his campaign, forcing Northam to the left and more importantly for independents, forcing Northam to run as someone he was not in order to carry the nomination against progressive darling Tom Perriello.
So here’s the question that should keep Democrats up at night in a cold sweat: is Ed Gillespie the Virginia version of Emmanuel Macron?
For those who are unaware of the politics overseas, Macron — the newly minted French President — emerged as the victor after a very tight first round against nationalist candidate Marine Le Pen of the French National Front, a party dominated by what Americans might term nativists and populists.
Barely noted in the American press after concerns that the National Front might gain a proportional amount of seats in the National Assembly was the bone-crushing win for the center-right just weeks after Macron’s victory. Macron’s Republic on the March Party carried 350 members of a 577-seat parliament — a remarkable victory not just over the nationalist right, but over the two traditional parties in France: the Socialists and the Republicans themselves. What’s more, Macron started from nothing — there was no party for Macron to build from; no organization other than his presidential campaign…
Consider the nature of the “grand coalition” in Germany between the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, headed up by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Consider as well that the UK Tories nearly pulled defeat from the jaws of victory against a UK Labour Party that has an actual Marxist at its head — a real socialist that nearly surprised a faux marketeer trying to capitalize on angst over Brexit.
Lee Drutman with the New America Foundation shared last week a lengthy paper discussing the polarization of the American electorate in recent years. His discoveries were somewhat jarring for those hoping for a center-right coalition in the United States.
Perhaps the most important charge was that socially liberal but economically conservative voters — the liberty movement, if you will — statistically does not exist, while the Democratic Party is basically unified on economic issues yet catastrophically split on whether American institutions actually work.
Leaving that point aside for just a moment, CATO has some good pushback on whether the “libertarian center” actually exists. Their conclusions? Something on the order of 7-22% of the American population is libertarian in their outlook — roughly the same size as the nationalist/populist wing of the American electorate.
Henry Olsen — a collaborator on Drutman’s project — has some insights as to what precisely is going on, and how Trump’s coalition of populists and conservatives is perhaps weaker than imagined:
Reagan’s criticisms of government had more to do with opposing what he saw as the leftward drift of Democrats on both opposition to communism and support for bigger government, as exemplified by Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Despite making one of his most famous political speeches on the eve of the 1964 election backing Barry Goldwater, Reagan did not go as far as Goldwater in his own ideology. Instead, Reagan accepted the New Deal and allowed a role for government programs such as Social Security and, eventually, Medicare (part of Johnson’s Great Society, which Reagan rebuked) even while criticizing a government that he saw as too big and too unresponsive to the people. In Olsen’s telling, Reagan occupied a position on the center-right, with contemporaries such as Goldwater and supply-side economy acolytes like David Stockman (Reagan’s one-time budget director) to his right and the Democratic Party to his left. “In short, Reagan was against returning to the America before the New Deal. He was for interpreting Roosevelt’s legacy in a way that maximized freedom and minimized bureaucratic control and the direction of Americans’ lives,” Olsen writes.
In that light, let’s compare the claim of “FDR’s framework, Reagan’s rules” to the current political dynamic as explained by Drutman:
As one can see, the “libertarian center” is nowhere to be found… or if it is found, it is scattered between two giant blobs between a polarized left and a less-polarized right. Yet note carefully — the populists are on the far right. The progressives are on the far left.
Libertarians and conservatives — the “honorable middle” where Reagan governed from? Up front and center where it ought to be.
Let’s return to Ralph Northam and the core insight of Drutman’s survey — that liberals and progressives are united on economics but violently split on process.
One notes two things immediately: (1) if the Democrats cannot keep their coalition together, they end up with tragic and insurmountable losses. Meanwhile, (2a) not only is it easier for Republicans to unite their own base based on degrees of intensity, (2b) notice where the Republicans are on economic issues?
Here’s where I think Gillespie stands a chance to pull off a center-right miracle in Virginia, one that we see duplicating itself in Germany and France (and in the United States with the repudiation of the Democrats in a 4-0 rout thus far) and rejected with catastrophic results in the United Kingdom:
(1) The issues that divide Trump Republicans, Cruz Republicans, and Ryan Republicans are by and large national issues. Anti-Muslim or immigration issues are entirely of federal concern. What united Republicans is a commitment to enforcing the existing law insofar as the state constitution and a federalist framework permit. Even on “moral issues” one finds a certain degree of unity (good news for John Adams in that regard).
(2) On the issues where Republicans are united, each and every one of them appeal to independent, liberty-leaning voters. Government intervention, economic inequality (just doesn’t exercise us), “people like me are in decline” being code neutral, and pride in America are all very consistent and definitive.
(3) Interestingly enough, where Republicans are strongest, the Democrats are the most divided. Note whether “politics is a rigged game” — Republicans are uniform in that sentiment, and Ryan Republicans more emphatic about it than Trump or Cruz supporters (surprisingly enough). Note further that while Democrats are united on issues, they are deeply divided on process — a process that failed to play out for their preferred candidate in Tom Perriello and played right into the confidence of Virginia-centric institutions such as Dominion Energy responsible for fueling our economic renaissance.
(4) So is there room for a center-right romp without populist support? Let’s rephrase the question entirely: Is there room for Gillespie to run on issues that unite the “honorable middle” to the conservative majority, while bringing along populist support?
If one splits the Virginia electorate in fourths and applies national numbers, you get this:
Which — if one buys the premise of this argument — if one plays this against a variant of the 2017 Virginia primary results, demonstrates that both the populist and progressive columns have “tapped out” while the conservative and libertarian pools remain largely unexplored:
And what do the polls show? As if by instinct, Gillespie leads among the independents needed to build the center-right coalition, while progressives continue to pound away at Northam in an effort to push him further and further left.
As Schapiro notes in his op-ed:
Losing for governor, then, despite those baked-in advantages, would be an abject humiliation for Democrats — one not explained away as a consequence of the baked-in advantages Republicans had in the congressional elections through gerrymandering and Trump’s strength within those manipulated districts.
Put another way: The Democrats’ strength in the Virginia campaign is macro. The Republicans’ strength in the U.S. House campaigns was micro.
In a suburban-dominated, increasingly diverse state such as Virginia, national Democrats — donors, strategists, commentators and officeholders — also may be overlooking an important distinction between the congressional races they lost and the gubernatorial election they hope to win: The former were fully federal in their focus; the latter, partially so.
To wit? GA-06 was a Trump +1 district — and $50 million dollars later, the Democrats still couldn’t put it away…
With Northam still being forced to focus on his progressive base, Gillespie not only has the national clout to be able to stand on his own two feet — Gillespie can do so while courting an “honorable middle” that is tired of renegades rattling the cages, competing for the independent voters already rattled and suspicious of how much Northam had to sell to radical and angry Bernie supporters.
Moreover, with populist issues off the table and manufactured issues such as Confederate monuments put to bed? The real issues come to the forefront — improving Virginia’s business climate, building the infrastructure to support our international port of call in Hampton Roads, and crafting a modern 21st century education system worthy of the name — all while getting an onerous state government off our backs.
Gillespie has all these cards and more. Northam by contrast is still shuffling the deck.