Why Ralph Northam Lost the Virginia Gubernatorial Race

Last week Democrats performed well in Virginia’s state government elections, and all of the Virginia liberals – or liberals who even have a shred of a connection to Virginia, or just liberals in general – were full of resplendent, overwhelming, misplaced joy. Northam lost the race.

Northam and Gillespie both lost the race for Virginia’s governor, and Trump won. The very thing that Northam was aiming to do was to “beat Trump.” But that’s the thing. Try not thinking about giant pink elephants, and the first thing you think of is a giant pink elephant. It makes giant pink elephants even more relevant, and makes the focus on giant pink elephants even more sharp.

Being a Virginia-raised conservative political science major who went to a state liberal arts school, I was bound to personally know a lot of the twenty-somethings on the Gillespie campaign. I do. They are genuinely nice, hard-working, intelligent, and passionate people of integrity. They had an uphill battle to fight, after Hillary Clinton won the state by 5%. They adopted a strategy that was distinctly anti-Trump, while attempting to borrow some of the past year’s Republican party platform. They moderated Trump’s rhetoric, and ran an issues-centric campaign, focused on the top issues of healthcare, jobs, economic growth, and taxes.

Then there was the anti-pink-elephant candidate Northam. He singlehandedly made Confederate monuments an issue of the Virginia governor’s race, when otherwise, they would have been a far-flung issue. He ran – via an outside group supported by his campaign with at least $62,000 – a racial stink-bomb of an ad that portrayed Gillespie’s supporters as homicidal, racist, white supremacist truck rammers bent on murdering immigrant children. I wish that were an exaggeration, but it isn’t. There was literally an ad coordinated by Northam’s campaign that injected such a narrative into the race.  The system of shell PACs Northam utilized gave him plausible deniability and by the time the public discovered and internalized the news that he was responsible for running the ad, he was already governor-elect.

"This gets us to the real issue of the race. If Democrats really want to “beat Trump,” or stop thinking about giant pink elephants, they need to think of something else. They need to think of orange crocodiles. They need to make their own way, rather than commenting about how everyone should be appalled by Trump. The sad missed opportunity in the race was to allow for a sane, logical discussion of real Virginian issues, and selection of a candidate based upon these issues. That didn’t happen.

Gillespie as a candidate was the moderate Republican opponent that the Democrats so badly want. He represented a moderate conservative view; someone Trump himself never saw as “his boy.” Gillespie never once campaigned alongside Trump, despite this off-year election being one of the more important races nationally. Trump, in post-election tweets, stated that Gillespie “did not embrace” him. The failure of Gillespie was not that he lost the race himself, but rather that he had to simultaneously appeal to a baseline level of hard right Trump voters, while being a fairly typical conservative. He may have been labeled "Trump-lite" because of this effort, and ultimately lost the race because he was not himself—a moderate business Republican with wide appeal on that basis. While Northam was off running against Donald Trump, Gillespie missed the opportunity to be the moderate pro-business conservative that would have won the race.

What the voters of Virginia are left with after electing Northam is “we don’t like giant pink elephants.” Which makes giant pink elephants all the more relevant and pertinent and famous. This just solidifies Donald Trump as a national focus, and presents a zero-sum choice: you’re either for or against giant pink elephants. There’s no alternative. The very thing Northam didn’t want representing the Virginia race or Virginia voters (Trump), is what they are now thinking of. The very racial divisiveness that Northam says he is conquering, he is evoking by his utilizing it as an electoral wedge strategy.

He may have won the battle, but with a very weak spine, and at great cost to his personal credibility. He may have won the battle, but he lost the war. He not just lost the battle or the war to Gillespie, a local moderate Republican, but to Trump. Northam loses because it is now Trump against Virginia. It is now Trump in control of the Republican party with no alternative. He now has complete control, and the only alternative solution is to either vote for a giant pink elephant, or an anti-giant pink elephant. To vote for Donald Trump or someone with whom they have no ideological common ground. Neither work, and giant pink elephants win.