RICHMOND, Va. — Democrats are looking to mobilize black voters for Virginia’s crucial gubernatorial race, hoping to boost turnout with a core constituency that has repeatedly helped turn the state blue in the past.
The governor’s race is one of the biggest electoral prizes on the ballot this year. With turnout expected to be significantly lower than last year’s presidential race, both parties are scrambling to make sure their base heads to the polls.
Democrats are working to engage black voters, who made up 20 percent of the electorate in the 2013 governor’s race and helped elect Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D). McAuliffe, who is term-limited out of office, won 90 percent of black voters in 2013, a similar total to Obama’s numbers in his 2012 reelection.
The Democrats’ focus on getting black voters to the polls was on display Thursday night, when Obama returned to the campaign trail for the first time since leaving office.
Obama was joined by Democratic gubernatorial nominee Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, Justin Fairfax, who is running for lieutenant governor and state Attorney General Mark Herring. If the Democratic ticket wins, Fairfax would be the first African-American elected statewide in more than two decades.
A crowd of 7,500 people packed the Greater Richmond Convention Center to hear speeches from Obama, as well as Reps. Bobby ScottRobert (Bobby) Cortez ScottProposed Virginia maps put rising-star House Democrats at risk Industry, labor groups at odds over financial penalties in spending package Historically Black colleges and universities could see historic funding under Biden plan MORE and Donald McEachin, two African-American lawmakers who represent Virginia districts with large concentrations of black voters.
While he didn’t mention President Trump or Republican nominee Ed Gillespie by name, Obama condemned the current political environment and addressed the fatal clashes over the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville.
Obama said that "the most painful parts of history" shouldn't be used as a way "to score political points."
"Instead of our politics reflecting our values, we've got politics infecting our communities," Obama said. "There are people all across this country that want to do things better, that want to work together."
Northam is locked in a tight race with Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman.
Polls have been all over the map, but recent surveys show Northam with some lead on his rival. But while Northam is considered the slight favorite, political observers believe Gillespie can still pull off a victory. He came close to doing so in the 2014 race against Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden: Russia attack 'would change the world' SALT change likely to be cut from bill, say Senate Democrats New Mexico Democrat tests positive for COVID-19 breakthrough case MORE (D-Va.), even though polls had the Democratic senator well ahead.
Virginia’s June primaries were a good sign for Democrats, with 200,000 more people voting in the Democratic primary than in the GOP primary. But Democratic turnout historically drops in off-year elections.
Obama didn’t mince words when it comes to his party’s “complacency” in nonpresidential elections.
"Y'all get a little sleepy. You get a little complacent. This is not my opinion. This is the data,” Obama said at Thursday’s rally. "It's going to come down to how bad you want it."
In an effort to combat those historic trends, BlackPAC, a national organization aiming to mobilize black voters to go to the polls, launched a $1.1 million program to engage voters of color in Virginia. The effort includes a $600,000 canvassing program, with the remainder used for radio and digital ads and mailers.
BlackPAC says it has talked to more than 4,500 black voters in southeast Virginia and plans to have about 100 canvassers door-knocking in the final weeks of the race.
Adrianne Shropshire, BlackPAC’s executive director, noted that 89 percent of the people they spoke to said they plan to vote on Nov. 7.
BlackPAC formed last year, working in key presidential states like Florida.
In the wake of the Charlottesville violence, BlackPAC commissioned a poll that reached out to voters of color on how they felt in the aftermath and their anxiety over racism and other related issues, which they say helped guide the current canvassing efforts.
Shropshire commended Obama for addressing Charlottesville. She said that the former president touched upon many of the issues she hears from voters and said that they are paying close attention to the governor’s race.
“What we have found is the black voters we’re talking to are pretty highly aware of the election,” Shropshire told The Hill. “I would say that people understand the stakes surely the way President Obama defined them.”
“What is more striking to me, people feel a sense of urgency around the election,” she continued, adding that voters are just as concerned about jobs and the economy as they are surrounding issues of racial justice.
While Obama’s presence at the rally appeared to fire up the crowd, political observers say the race will still come down to Northam and how much he can energize black voters. Northam highlighted the diversity of the state, calling it the "Virginia way" that anyone can get ahead regardless of race, ethnicity or religion.
Still, Northam’s campaign recently earned negative press after it left Fairfax’s name off some campaign literature at the request of a labor union that hadn’t endorsed the lieutenant governor candidate. Fairfax has called it a “mistake.”
“Ultimately, the person who is most important is at the top of the ticket. If Northam isn’t exciting African-American voters, then he may also have weaker turnout than he may want,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia.
“I think the polls actually do sort of indicate a Northam lead, but not big enough for him to feel super confident.”
Meanwhile, Republicans have also brought out the political heavy-hitters to excite their base. Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceBest path to Jan. 6 accountability: A civil suit against Trump Biden trails generic Republican in new poll, would face tight race against Trump Jan. 6 panel's subpoena furthers complications for Rudy Giuliani, DOJ MORE recently campaigned with Gillespie in southwest Virginia to urge those in coal country to vote in early November. Trump’s message resonated with people in coal country, and Republicans want those same voters to get out to vote again this year.
“Ed Gillespie is fighting for the lifeblood of southwest Virginia,” Pence said at last weekend’s rally in Abingdon. “Like President Trump, Ed digs coal.”
While Pence played up the White House’s involvement in the Virginia governor’s race, it remains to be seen if Trump will come to the commonwealth in the final two weeks of the race. The president has tweeted support for Gillespie and also attacked Northam, accusing him of “fighting for” the MS-13 gang, which has become a flashpoint in the race.
In the final two weeks of the race, both candidates will traverse the state to get their voters out. But Shropshire noted that black voter outreach needs to be done more than a few weeks out, with the group aiming to make it a more long-term effort to aid in future elections.
“Part of our perspective in engaging black voters is that it has to be a long-term engagement and it has to start early,” Shropshire said. “The idea of engaging voters and black voters in particular in the final two weeks really isn’t the path to winning long term.”
“Deep long-term engagement with elections is important, part of the lesson in all of this is we have to start talking to voters earlier.”