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Progressives fume as Northam stumbles in Va.

Progressives fume as Northam stumbles in Va.
© Greg Nash

Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D) surprise decision Wednesday to say that he'd sign a bill outlawing so-called sanctuary cities has triggered outrage from some Democrats, who fear Northam is fumbling Tuesday’s must-win race. 

Democracy for America (DFA) announced that it’s pulling “direct aid” for Northam following his sanctuary city comments, although the group never officially endorsed his campaign. The progressive group called his campaign “racist,” accusing Northam’s camp of prioritizing swing voters over the party base.

Sanctuary cities don’t exist in Virginia, but they’ve been a dominant theme in the governor’s race thanks to attacks from Republican Ed Gillespie.

Republicans seized on Northam’s latest comments, characterizing them as a flip-flop. Northam voted against a similar bill in the state legislature, but he’s called that bill a “political game” and argued that he hasn’t changed his position on sanctuary cities and has been clear about his opposition. Northam said in a recent interview that he'd sign a bill banning sanctuary cities "if that bill comes to my desk."

In a tight off-year election where turnout is unpredictable, some Democrats vented frustration about the progressive group’s decision to go public five days before the critical race. Northam, who has accused Gillespie of a “fear mongering” campaign, once had a larger edge in a state that President Trump lost by 5 points in 2016. Now Democrats are worried about their prospects in what has become the only competitive statewide race of the year.

DFA defended its decision, saying the group had already ceased collecting data on Northam after news broke that his running mate, Justin Fairfax, was left off of campaign literature by the request of a union that hadn’t endorsed him. 

“The reason why we’re standing up now is because we’ve been seeing this pattern of strategy by the Northam campaign to alienate the base, while trying to go over these mythological, swing-able Republican voters,” Charles Chamberlain, DFA’s executive director, told The Hill in a Friday interview.

“We specifically spoke up because we’re worried about the outcome of this race. We are very afraid that he’s going to lose and that’s exactly why we spoke out because they have five days to course-correct.”

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D), the founder of DFA who left the organization last November, broke with his former group, tweeting that it was a “destructive and foolish statement.”

And Northam’s campaign released a statement from state Del. Alfonso Lopez, who touted the lieutenant governor’s record on other immigration issues — a statement that DFA’s Chamberlain praised, telling The Hill that he should instead run on those positions in the race’s closing days.

“He knows the difference between real legislation and ‘dog whistle’ policies crafted only to instill fear and create division,” Lopez said in the statement about Northam. “He hasn’t changed his positions — he has always been consistent. And he has always been a consistent friend to the Latino and New American communities.” 

The fallout from Northam’s sanctuary cities remark comes on the heels of a Democratic outside group pulling its controversial ad that earned heavy criticism. Northam’s campaign said it didn’t coordinate with Latino Victory Fund, but it took some heat for never disavowing the ad that featured minority children running away from a truck sporting a Confederate flag and Gillespie campaign bumper sticker chasing them down the street.

Latino Victory Fund pulled the ad a day after the truck terrorist attack in New York City, but still defended the spot. "We held a mirror up to the Republican Party, and they don’t like what they see,” president Cristobal Alex said in a statement.

While the recent events are a blow to Northam’s momentum, some Democrats argue that most voters — particularly those who are undecided — are likely not paying attention to these developments in the race and are likely more aware of prominent events like the charges of three former Trump campaign aides in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. 

“I think we can all quickly overplay the impact of this because we see it a lot in our email inbox but it’s not what voters are seeing and caring about, especially the undecided voters,” said a Democratic strategist with ties to Virginia.

“These are low information voters and the biggest deciding factor in their vote is going to be the approval of the president and the latest piece of information they got was the [former campaign chairman Paul] Manafort indictment.”