Is Virginia’s Ralph Northam the Second Coming of Anthony Brown?

By Josh Kurtz

Maryland Republican and Democratic strategists will no doubt be looking at next week’s election results in Virginia for possible trends that could take hold here as the 2018 election cycle ramps up.

But if Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam fails in his bid for a promotion, what they should be asking is: Why was the Democrats’ failed playbook from the 2014 Maryland gubernatorial election – and to a lesser extent, Hillary Clinton’s failed playbook from 2016 – used again in Virginia? Because that’s the way it’s beginning to look.

One week out, Northam remains the slight favorite over Ed Gillespie, the former Republican National Committee chairman, K Street lobbyist and GOP operative. President Trump lost Virginia in 2016 – one of the few states that President Obama put in the Democratic column that stayed there with Clinton – and his poll numbers there are pretty low.

The one thing that Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam’s campaign for governor wants voters to know about him is that he is a doctor.

But Northam seems to be running a low energy campaign, relying on ads that attack Gillespie as an extremist who will take away women’s abortion rights, put more guns on the street, and obliterate environmental protections enacted under departing Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D). Just about all we know about Northam from his ads – and most of the coverage about the race – is that he is a pediatrician.

We haven’t heard a lot about what Northam plans to do as governor. And as The Washington Post archly put it recently, if 6-year-olds could vote, Northam would probably win in a landslide.

For Democrats, this should sound distressingly familiar.

In Maryland in 2014, then-Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown’s (D) campaign relied on ads attacking Larry Hogan as an extremist who would take away women’s abortion rights, put more guns on the street, and obliterate environmental protections enacted under departing Gov. Martin O’Malley (D). Just about all we knew about Brown from his ads – and most of the coverage about the race – was that he was a soldier dedicated to public service. We didn’t hear a lot about what Brown planned to do as governor.

In the Virginia Democratic primary, Northam, anointed by party powerbrokers (and an ex-military man himself), faced a more progressive candidate, Tom Perriello, a former one-term congressman, who took bold positions, was unafraid to speak his mind, and had a dedicated group of followers. By comparison, Northam seems cautious to a fault, a little too eager not to offend.

In the Maryland Democratic primary three years ago, Brown, anointed by party powerbrokers (and the son of a doctor), faced a more progressive candidate, Heather Mizeur, a state delegate who took bold positions, was unafraid to speak her mind, and had a dedicated group of followers (then-Attorney General Doug Gansler was also a candidate). By comparison, Brown seemed cautious to a fault, a little too eager not to offend.

The analogy only goes so far, however. Northam, according to people who know him, is truly a decent guy from the Eastern Shore of Virginia who is temperamentally understated and whose political moderation comes naturally. Brown seemed robotic and image-conscious and a little too entitled at the time.

Ed Gillespie and Larry Hogan are different breeds of cat, too. And the 2017 election cycle is vastly different from 2014, especially the demands placed on Republican candidates.

Gillespie and Hogan probably aren’t a whole lot different philosophically. They are conservative Catholics with a healthy dose of political pragmatism. Both have been around politics all their lives, even though Gillespie, like Hogan before he was elected, has never held elective office before – though he has run unsuccessfully before.

But 2014 was a Republican year nationally, and the dynamic this time is vastly different and more volatile. And there was no Trump as political phenomenon three years back, no class of angry Trump-aligned voters that more mainstream Republicans like Gillespie now have to cater to.

Hogan’s critique of Brown and the Democrats three years ago was based largely on taxes and the state of the economy. Gillespie has seen fit to stoke the voters’ fears on issues like Salvadoran gang violence and the erroneous notion that Virginia could become a “sanctuary” state.

Hogan had a unified Republican Party behind him in 2014. Gillespie’s hold on the party’s most conservative voters is still a little tenuous.

Which doesn’t take away our original thesis. At its most superficial level – and face it, that’s how most voters will see it – Northam’s campaign, just like Brown’s before it, seems to be based on not much, beyond attacking his opponent.

He may well prevail next Tuesday. But he might not. And wouldn’t that be another case of political malpractice by the Democrats?

Josh Kurtz
Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.


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