Between Pragmatism and Purity: Virginia Democrats Try to Come Together

AP Photo/Steve Helber

People cheer during a rally for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam in Richmond

Time was short, and the activists knew it. Crowded into a small living room, they listened intently as an organizer explained which doors to knock on and what words to say. The three-story home, located in Virginia’s wealthy Stafford County, a Washington suburb, had been converted into a de facto headquarters for Democratic volunteers in the area, hosting canvass launches for various candidates. They would be spending the day going after likely Democratic voters, attempting to turn out the party’s base.

“We all know what happens when Democrats don’t vote,” Jennifer Carroll Foy, a candidate for Virginia’s House of Delegates, told the volunteers. “We cannot feel those same feelings that we felt on November 9, last year: horror, frustration, hopelessness.”

Alarmed by Donald Trump’s surprise victory, a wave of first-time candidates, eager volunteers and new grassroots groups across the country has risen up to fight back. Carroll Foy, running in Virginia’s Second District, finds herself at the forefront of the liberal resurgence in the Commonwealth, where Democrats will be competing in more state legislative districts than they have in any election year since 1981.

But enthusiasm and engagement should not be confused with unity. In addition to testing the robustness of anti-Trump fervor, the Virginia elections next Tuesday should also provide some insight into whether the Democrats' establishment and insurgent wings can come together to make gains in the 2018 contests. In the months since the presidential election, Democrats have been divided on strategy and substance, fighting over issues such as universal health care and abortion rights.

In Virginia, progressive candidates like Carroll Foy challenged local party-establishment picks; a heated Democratic primary for governor between former congressman Tom Perriello and current Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam (who won) drew contrived comparisons to Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton from national media outlets; Democratic party officials criticized the state party for ignoring rural voters in their outreach.

The question of this election season is whether progressive and establishment Democrats in Virginia can set their differences aside to keep a Democrat in the governor's office (incumbent Terry McAuliffe is termed out) and pick up seats in the legislature.

“Anytime that you’re the party that’s out of power, divisions can begin to get glossed over,” says Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. “If Hillary Clinton were in the White House and not Donald Trump, we might be seeing more open tension in Virginia.”

Democrats can’t afford to have much tension. Republicans hold a majority in the Virginia Senate and a supermajority in the House. The Republican gubernatorial candidate, Ed Gillespie, is polling just a few points behind Northam. In the midst of all this, Virginia Democrats are changing. The ongoing growth of Washington's increasingly liberal Virginia suburbs, the entry of Bernie Sanders enthusiasts, combined with a groundswell of fresh-faced candidates, has shifted Democratic politics in the Virginia to left.

Over the past couple of decades, the state has elected a stream of moderate Democrats: Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine and former Senator Jim Webb, most prominently – all somewhat to the right of the national party on many issues. Northam's record, and his current candidacy, place him squarely in the Webb-Warner-Kaine line. So the question is whether the thought of a Democratic governor, if not Northam himself, to offset the GOP's likely continued hold on the legislature will sufficiently motivate the new breed of Virginia progressives to get themselves to the polls. 

The Northam campaign is confident that their candidate will overcome such obstacles. "We have seen historic levels of volunteer activity, small donor donations, and primary turnout,” says spokesman David Turner. “We are confident going into election day because the Democratic ticket is resonating with Virginians."

Every person interviewed for this article made a point of stressing that the talk of infighting was overblown. Whether that sentiment reflects reality, however, won't be clear until the votes are counted, nor is it clear what things will look like once elections are over.

Sister District, a post-Trump political action committee that looks to reallocate resources and manpower from safe blue to winnable red districts is taking the pragmatic approach – at least for the time being. “We don’t have the luxury of setting a litmus test for our candidates,” says executive director Rita Bosworth. She notes that Democrats hold 1,000 fewer state and federal legislative seats nationwide than they did in 2008. “Our strategy is always evolving… but for now, it’s not our mission to move the party to the left.”

Other groups are operating according to their own vision. Run For Something, a new political start-up focused on getting young progressives to run for local office, has endorsed or otherwise supported 11 Democratic delegate candidates in Virginia. According to cofounder Ross Rocketto, the group is happy to work with Democrats in Virginia, but remains focused on running new progressive candidates who might not have been otherwise selected.

“Some of the candidates we endorse aren’t the establishment fix,” says Rocketto. “If the Democratic Party of Virginia wants to support them, great. If not, that’s too bad. But we’re not going to change or abandon our endorsements.”

The surge of new progressivism has put pressure on the old ways of doing things in Virginia. Before the June primaries, 75 delegate candidates, many of them political newcomers like Carroll Foy, pledged to refuse donations from Dominion Energy—a utility giant that has been one of the largest donors to both Virginia Republicans and Democrats, including both Northam and Gillespie.

Democratic Party officials say they’re fine with their candidates opposing the influential corporation. “We have no issue with candidates having unique ideologies,” says Trent Armitage, executive director of Virginia’s House Democratic Caucus. “This is an all hands on deck situation and our primary focus is winning elections—the rest is just noise.”

Yet concerted efforts from some progressive groups at the district level begin to thin out at the top of the ticket. Despite moving left on key issues like setting a $15 minimum wage and decriminalizing marijuana, Northam has not been endorsed by major progressive players like Our Revolution, Democracy For America, and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC). His has been a different reception than that of his running mate Justin Fairfax, who ran as an outsider candidate and has become both at once the darling of progressives and considered a rising star within the Democratic establishment.

After Northam won the primary, PCCC, which had endorsed Perriello, decided that it would solely focus on House races and the lieutenant governor’s race. The decision, according to Kenton Ngo, who leads the group’s work in Virginia, was “not an indictment” of Northam, but rather a reassessment of its strategy. “We want to be involved where we can make the most impact,” says Ngo. “For us, an endorsement is a partnership, not just a signal for who to vote for. That means fundraising and getting really involved with the campaign.”

Perriello, for his part, quickly backed Northam after the primary.

Democracy for America stayed out of the gubernatorial election entirely, citing Perriello’s voting record as a congressman and disappointment with Northam’s position on a controversial pipeline project. But the group has gone all in on working with down-ballot candidates. On Thursday, DFA announced that Northam's decision to oppose the establishment of sanctuary cities within Virginia (no city has passed such an ordinance, but the Gillespie campaign had run ads suggesting that Northam would support such laws and thereby coddle MS-13 and other predominantly immigrant gangs) had compelled them to denounce his candidacy.

“We refuse to be silent any longer and even remotely complicit in the disastrous, racist, and voter-turnout-depressing campaign Ralph Northam appears intent on running,” DFA executive director Charles Chamberlain said in the statement outlining the group’s position.

Ezra Levin, a co-founder of the grassroots Indivisible network of progressive groups, responded harshly on Twitter to Northam’s sanctuary city announcement:

 

 

Neither PCCC nor Democracy for America believe that they would bear any culpability for a potential Northam loss. “The statement can’t be made that the work of Democracy for America has ever hurt the Democratic party,” says Mondale Robinson, Democracy for America’s electoral campaign manager. “If anything, we’ve supported the party by trying to prevent them from screwing things up even more.”

Northam’s spokesman David Turner did not respond to Levin or the DFA statement, but said that rumors of discontent from progressive voters have been greatly exaggerated and don’t line up with recent data showing heightened volunteer numbers and convincing primary turnout across demographic groups in June.

Other observers agree that when push comes to shove, progressive Democrats will still turn out for Northam. "While there's definitely discord within the Democratic Party in Virginia, there's no reason to think that discord will affect the 2017 gubernatorial results,” says Josh Stanfield, a former Sanders delegate to the Democratic National Convention and executive director of Activate Virginia, the group that first circulated among delegate candidates a pledge to not accept Dominion money. “I can't think of a self-identified Democrat who isn't voting for Northam and the rest of the ticket this year, regardless of their criticisms of the campaign or the state party.”

Virginia’s election will have ramifications for years to come. The Old Dominion’s next governor will oversee the once-a-decade redistricting process and Virginia legislators will be charged with redrawing district maps. Thanks to a Republican takeover of state houses around the country in 2010, the GOP has maintained a firm grip on Congress, despite consistently winning fewer votes than Democrats in congressional elections.

Tensions on the left may indeed be overblown, but opinions on the future of the Democratic party in Virginia remain far from monolithic. It seems likely that a loss in the governor’s race in Virginia would lead progressive Democrats to blame establishment candidates and strategy for reducing turnout in the base (as Northam's repudiation of sanctuary cities may), and establishment Democrats to criticize progressives for not throwing their full support behind the ticket.

Either way, Carroll Foy’s words ring true: we all know what happens when Democrats don’t vote.

This article has been updated. 

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