The Left and Ralph Northam

AP Photo/Steve Helber

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam, left, waves to the crowd as Governor Terry McAuliffe applauds during a rally in Richmond

Virginia’s gubernatorial race is tightening. According to a Washington Post poll the lead Democrat Ralph Northam holds over Republican Ed Gillespie has narrowed from 13 points earlier this month to just five points. The poll makes clear that Gillespie has consolidated support among the Old Dominion’s Trump supporters: 95 percent of those voters favor Gillespie. Northam though has failed to reel in a comparable share of voters who disapprove of Trump: 81 percent of the anti-Trump electorate back him.

The numbers suggest that some Republicans who dislike Trump are nonetheless voting for Gillespie—a more conventional Republican and seemingly more normal human being than the president (admittedly, a low bar to clear) Gillespie’s challenge has been to win over the party’s Trumpian base. To that end, his demagogic ads—linking, however improbably, the mild-mannered pediatrician Northam to the MS-13 gang, and affirming Gillespie’s intention to keep Confederate statues in the state’s courthouse squares—have apparently secured the support of the nativists and racists who flocked to Trump but refused to believe that Gillespie was really on their side.

It’s not clear if Northam has done as good a job in consolidating the Democratic base. Minority and youth turnout always drops in non-presidential elections, and Northam’s low-voltage, relatively centrist campaign hasn’t dramatized the difference between the two candidates nearly as starkly as those Gillespie TV spots do. One takeaway from the polling is that the Democratic left has failed to rally to Northam’s banner in numbers comparable to the Republican right’s belated embrace of Gillespie.

Precisely because Virginia is still a purple state, however—with Republican control of the state legislature offset by term-limited Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s control of the governor’s office—the strategic case for reluctant leftists to bestir themselves to vote for Northam is strong.

Should the GOP come out of the election with a gubernatorial pickup and continued majorities in the legislature, Virginia would surely enact draconian measures against the state’s sizable immigrant population, and come up with a host of other repressive statutes.

More narrowly, in the redistricting following the 2020 census, a unified Republican state government would draw, unchallenged, the state’s congressional and legislative districts. In 2011, the GOP majority in the state Assembly created a marvel of gerrymandering that ensured heavy Republican Assembly majorities, even though the state overall has steadily become more Democratic. Needless to say, Bob McDonnell, the Republican governor at that time, signed the plan into law. 

Should Gillespie win next Tuesday, the prospects for electing Democrats, much less Democrats on the left, to congressional or legislative seats, grow dimmer, as do the prospects for enacting genuinely progressive legislation or repealing reactionary laws. That would still be the case even if a Democrat is elected governor in 2021, 2025 and 2029. Northam is nobody’s leftist, but his victory would create more districts in which Democrats could send more of their own to legislate in both Richmond and Washington, just as his defeat would ensure that there would be fewer progressives in either capital. Such is the logic of elections in a two-party system with partisan control of redistricting—the system in which all of us, left, right, and center, have been compelled to operate.

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