The Omni Homestead resort in Hot Springs was the center of politics in the Commonwealth of Virginia. On Saturday July 22nd, the Virginia Bar Association welcomed the current lieutenant governor, Democrat, Ralph Northam and businessman, Republican, Ed Gillespie to participate in the debate moderated by “PBS Newshour” host Judy Woodruff.
Since securing their respective party’s nominations both candidates have tried to focus their attention on what they believe to be their opponent’s biggest weakness.
The Gillespie campaign has highlighted Ralph Northam’s indecisiveness on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The lieutenant governor has tried to walk a tightrope on the Dominion Project. During his primary race with Tom Perriello, Ralph Northam opted to defer to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality as to what would be the best decision for the citizens of the Commonwealth. His well crated political answers about the pipeline have hurt him. His middle of the road approach has alienated the environmentalist wing of the Democratic party who supported his primary opponent.
Since securing the Democratic party’s nomination, Ralph Northam has sought to make this election a referendum on the Presidency of Donald Trump: whom he has referred to as a “narcissistic maniac.” The lieutenant governor has tried to link Ed Gillespie to the polices, or lack of polices, coming out of Washington D.C. His campaign even incorporated the use of a cardboard cutout of Ed Gillespie in a Facebook live video while reading the proposed GOP healthcare bill.
Both of these strategies, on the surface, are politically savvy, but the Northam strategy is problematic. Making the November election a referendum on Donald Trump is likely to fail in what is expected to be another low voter turnout election. The Commonwealth remains a purple state even though the Democratic candidate has won here in three straight presidential elections. Republicans control the state legislature due to heavily gerrymandered districts and the Democrats off year election apathy.
In the 2016 presidential election (according to the Virginia Department of Elections) 72% of registered Virginians participated. That was up one percentage point from 2012, but down from the 74% who voted in 2008. If the 2017 gubernatorial election follows the 2009 and 2013 trends there could be as much as a 30-percentage point drop in voter participation. This fact doomed State Senator Creigh Deeds in his 2009 gubernatorial race against Republican Bob McDonnell.
Ed Gillespie’s strategy of forcing Ralph Northam to go on the record about the Atlantic Coast Pipeline could prove to be his trump card (pun intended). The interruption at the beginning of the VBA debate by a young man form Loudon County is indicative of where a lot of the Bernie Sanders/Tom Perriello progressives stand on this issue. The lieutenant governor would have to get unprecedented support from the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains if young environmentalist in the progressive wing of the Democratic party take 2017 off.
This election isn’t likely to turn on issues affecting the masses of Virginians. There are a lot of one issue voters who won’t concern themselves with budgets, tax policies, healthcare, or infrastructure spending. Voters who followed these candidates through their primary races likely didn’t learn anything new during this debate. For them, Saturday morning was more performance art than a rigorous dialogue about the issues. For voters tuning in for the first time the candidates painted a Rorschach of themselves and their opponent. Neither candidate improved or diminished their chances of winning in November; If you are a Republican Gillespie will do, and if you are a Democrat Northam is your guy. Both candidates looked like boxers content with letting the judges decide the outcome. A lot can happen between now and November, but the most eventful moment of this debate belonged to a young man who isn’t on the ballot.