This fall's pair of gubernatorial races have flown under the radar nationally -- perhaps due to relatively low drama, as Democrats are expected to win both contests. In New Jersey, Chris Christie's legacy is a mess, so the Democratic nominee is poised to win an easy victory over the sitting Lieutenant Governor. Most polling in Virginia, meanwhile, has shown Team Blue ahead by a modest but consistent margin. But National Review's Jim Geraghty has been writing about a creeping sense of complacency-fueled dread among Virginia Democratic operatives this week. I doubt Ralph Northam would sign up to trade places with Ed Gillespie three weeks from election day, but do Old Dominion Dems have good reason to be anxiously looking over their shoulder? Unhinged New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has been begging his party to pay more attention to the race, while the Daily Beast cites sources who are worried about a widespread blend of indifference and over-confidence:
...None of the enthusiasm that bubbled around Ossoff’s long-shot bid is apparent around Northam. With just a month to go before the vote, Democratic operatives working on the race and those closely following it are more openly panicked that complacency has set in...Northam has had little grassroots enthusiasm too. Of the $12.6 million he had raised through the end of August, a mere $478,000 had come from people giving $100 or less... [the race] is—perhaps unexpectedly—quite close. A Washington Post poll released on Thursday had Northam up by 13 points over Gillespie. But three Democratic sources have told The Daily Beast that Northam’s internal campaign polling has the race within the margin of error, and not at the outer edges of that range.
When you have party and campaign sources leaking data to reporters that rebuts public polling showing their guy with comfortable lead, you know things must be uncomfortably tight. Sure, some of that is probably a calculated effort to light a fire underneath a listless base on behalf of a milquetoast candidate, but there's more to it than that. Geraghty suggest Virginia Democrats are likely jittery for three reasons: The national party's losing streak in big races, Ralph Northam's uninspiring personality, and the recent history of Republican underdogs signficiantly outperforming expectations in statewide races. We highlighted that latter trend in our post a few weeks ago, and Jim outlines it again here:
The third cause seems like the best reason to worry. In both the 2013 gubernatorial race featuring Ken Cuccinelli and the 2014 Senate race featuring Gillespie, the Republican candidate dramatically overperformed compared to the final polls. The final RealClearPolitics average in 2013 had Cuccinelli trailing by 6.7 points; he lost by 2.5 points. The 2014 result was even more dramatic; the final RCP average put Democrat Mark Warner ahead by 9.7 points; he won by eight-tenths of a percentage point. Is this a “shy Tory” effect? Are Virginia Republicans particularly reticent to tell a pollster they’re voting for the GOP candidate? Is the Virginia Republican get-out-the-vote effort worth a few extra percentage points? No one in Virginia politics knows for certain. But it suggests that a small Democratic lead heading into Election Day might not be so reliable.
Sure enough, a new public poll contradicts the WaPo number, showing a four-point contest with Northam still falling short of 50 percent. "Yes, you would rather be leading than trailing . . . but this is an off-year election, with the older, whiter, and more conservative electorate than in a presidential year," Jim writes. "Both polling and anecdotal evidence — yard signs, etcetera — suggest that this year’s race is attracting much less attention and enthusiasm than in 2013 and 2009." On that last point, Gillespie could potentially benefit from similar dynamics that put him within a whisker of stunning Sen. Mark Warner in 2014. Meanwhile, he's been looking to lock down and energize the GOP base by hammering Democrats' unpopular stance on confederate statue removal, and pushing hard on immigration and gang violence. Though he's getting heavily outspent by Democrats and liberal special interest groups (which is hardly an aberration, despite the Left's empty whining about money in politics), Gillespie has been trying to break through with ads like these -- which have been widely panned by the DC commentariat:
Beltway journo-types have ridiculed these spots as alarmist and irrelevant (I've personally been more motivated to support Gillespie thanks to Northam's attack ads), but check out this headline that popped just yesterday:
That's on the heels of this horrible MS-13 murder story that shocked Virginians over the summer. The issue clearly has traction, and I've been told the GOP possesses some data indicating that it resonates. Gillespie and Republicans have also been hitting Northam on absenteeism and taxes -- an issue on which Northam has failed to release any semblance of a detailed plan. I'll leave you with this positive ad touting the GOP's lieutenant governor nominee, Jill Vogel:
Vogel is a sharp, savvy conservative who represents, in my view, the future of the party in battleground districts and states; she's fiscally prudent, pro-life and socially inclusive. Disclosure: I plan to enthusiastically support the Gillespie/Vogel ticket next month, and would do so even if I hadn't worked under Gillespie at the White House in 2007.