Politics

Virginia Governor's Race Isn't Just About the Candidates

Bernie Sanders and Steve Bannon aren't running, but they're shadow-campaigning.

Where's Bernie?

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont socialist, and Steve Bannon, the nationalist provocateur, are playing roles in the most important election this year, the Virginia governor's race.

Sanders, who gained his national following by running for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, has refused to endorse the Democratic candidate, Ralph Northam, a mainstream progressive. This signals the left-winger's determination to set ideological litmus tests for Democrats.

Bannon, the former top strategist for President Donald Trump, is on a mission to destroy the Republican Party establishment. In Virginia, he's helped pressure Republican Ed Gillespie, a quintessential establishment figure, to embrace immigrant-bashing and race-baiting.

The significance of the Nov. 7 contest extends beyond the state's borders. A Northam victory would be welcomed by Obama-Clinton Democrats and would diminish Trump, a frequent target of the Democrat's speeches and commercials.

A Gillespie win would embolden Trump and Bannon, who has threatened to take out any Republican who doesn't toe the Trumpian populist line. It also might buttress Sanders's argument that Democrats should move further leftward to energize voters who didn't respond to Hillary Clinton's cautious liberalism last year.

Both parties and many outside groups are pouring millions of dollars into the race, with Virginia one of two states to elect a governor this year. In the other, New Jersey, Democrat Phil Murphy, a banker, is expected to defeat the Republican lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno, and replace the unpopular Republican incumbent Chris Christie.

In Virginia, Northam won the Democratic nomination in June after an intense primary contest, with Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren backing former Representative Tom Perriello. Northam had the support of Obama-Clinton Democrats like Governor Terry McAuliffe, who is blocked by term limits from seeking more time in office, along with Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine.

Northam won a surprisingly convincing victory and Perriello has actively campaigned for him.

Sanders hasn't. His political organization, "Our Revolution," endorsed six Democrats in state legislative races but pointedly declined to back Northam. The Democratic nominee has taken standard liberal positions on taxes, health care and education and favors expanding Medicaid for poor Virginians and liberalizing immigration policies. But he doesn't back Sanders's embrace of a single-payer national health-care system and free college education.

Democratic strategists hope that disdain for Trump will matter more to Virginia liberals than the Sanders snub. But they worry about the national effect of a rule-or-ruin Sanders strategy of insisting that Democratic candidates next year and in 2020 toe his line or face opposition from his energetic base.

That kind of threat is exactly what Bannon has been delivering on the Republican side. He and his allies have pressured Gillespie, who won a close primary against an ultraconservative opponent, to run as an immigrant-bashing nationalist.

It's a big shift for Gillespie, a prototype Republican establishmentarian. He's a former party chair who is close to the Bush family and lobbies for powerful interests in Washington. (Northam rails about "Enron Ed," noting that Gillespie worked for the scandal-ridden and now defunct Texas energy company.)

In person, Gillespie remains that old-fashioned conservative. Appearing before a business group last week, for example, he talked about lower taxes, less regulation, small business job creators and the virtues of outsourcing government work to private contractors.

In his advertising, though, he's more in the Bannon mold. One Gillespie campaign commercial accuses Northam of enabling sanctuary cities, shielding illegal immigrants and protecting the murderous MS-13 gang members, replete with pictures of violent thugs. Virginia doesn't have sanctuary cities; the thugs had been photographed in a prison in El Salvador.

He's come out for keeping statues of Confederate war leaders on the state capitol grounds. And he attacked Democrats for restoring voting rights to some convicted felons even though Virginia remains one of only four states that don't automatically restore the right to vote after prisoners have served their sentences.

A Washington Post editorial called the ads "poisonous," convincingly arguing that they reflect "Trump's brand of divisive, scaremongering politics." This seems to have satisfied Bannon, who has been quick to attack other regular Republicans.

Still, Gillespie rarely mentions Trump, who remains unpopular in Virginia, a state he lost to Clinton by five percentage points. There's a debate in Republican circles over whether bringing in Trump next week to excite right-wing voters would help or hurt. 

"Just as Trump doesn't reveal his military strategy, we don't reveal our political strategy," said Pete Snyder, the Gillespie campaign chairman. "Everything is on the table."

Gillespie, experienced and energetic, is a better retail politician than the low-key, folksy Northam, a former U.S. Army doctor and pediatric neurologist. On the other hand, unlike other recent elections, polls show that Virginia's Democratic voters are more motivated than Republican ones, which could boost their turnout above the levels that helped McAuliffe prevail four years ago.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net

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