Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Virginia governor's race is a test for Democrats who have trouble appealing to rural voters

Northam (L) and Gillespie afterward (AP photo: Steve Helber)
The race for governor of Virginia is shaping up to be a prime example of Democrats' discomfort with rural issues, and its outcome may serve as a coal-mine canary for the party's efforts to win over rural voters in other states.

Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, who grew up on the rural Eastern Shore, has been reticent to reach out to rural voters. He has spent little time campaigning in rural areas, and was "visibly uncomfortable" addressing coal Monday night in the latest gubernatorial debate, held at the University of Virginia's College at Wise, in the Central Appalachian coalfield, James Hohmann reports in "The Daily 202" for The Washington Post.

"Northam struggles to talk about cultural issues like Confederate monuments and economic issues like coal in a way that resonates with these voters but does not alienate progressives who he needs to turn out for him in places like the D.C. suburbs," Hohmann reports. Republican Ed Gillespie, on the other hand, has spent considerable time and money campaigning in rural Virginia, especially in the southwest, where President Trump won 80 percent of the vote last year. The former chairman of the Republican National Committee was eager to go on the offensive about coal, promising to reinstate a coal tax credit if elected. He also celebrated the Trump administration's rescission of the Clean Power Plan and warned viewers that Northam would try to enact a Virginia version of the bill if elected, Hohmann notes.

The debate "brought political and media attention to a part of the state whose residents often feel left out of the discussion," reports Stuart Burrill of The Coalfield Progress in Norton. "This was the first time candidates for governor have debated west of Roanoke." That sounds like it was Gillespie's idea, and the non-rural orientation of Northam's campaign became clearer today with the announcement that Barack Obama will make his first post-presidency campaign appearance for Northam in Richmond Oct. 19, The Associated Press reports.

Northam has posted single-digit leads in polls, but Gillespie remains viable. If Northam loses, "It will set off Democratic alarm bells about the wisdom of their midterm strategy and generate a wave of nasty recriminations in the escalating civil war between the pragmatists and the leftists," Hohmann writes. "For Democrats, figuring out how to get a toehold back into rural territory is imperative. The biggest Senate battlegrounds in 2018 are in states like North Dakota, Montana, West Virginia, Indiana and Missouri."

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