How Ralph Northam’s Campaign Led Virginia Democrats To A Historic Victory
On November 7th, history was made. In a country where the president just attempted to ban them from serving in the military, the first transgender state lawmaker was elected. In a country where the president just rescinded DACA and signed an executive order rolling back women’s guarantee to contraceptive coverage, the first Asian-American and Latina women state lawmakers were elected in Virginia. And in a country where the president and his party are actively trying to overhaul the healthcare system, a lifelong physician was elected Governor of Virginia.
And that was just one state. In special elections around the country, it was a day of historic firsts. What we saw was a repudiation of everything Donald Trump stands for and a reaffirmation of real American values. Hope beat hate. Inclusivity beat intolerance. Truth beat disinformation. Optimism beat Trumpism.
As Republican strategist and 2008 campaign adviser to Senator John McCain Steve Schmidt said in an appearance on MSNBC:
“It was a coalition of the decent.”
Heading into election day, there was talk of division within the Democratic Party and pundits began to doubt whether or not Northam could pull it off…What ended up happening was a paradigm-shifting victory not only for Virginia but for the Democratic Party as a whole.
Ralph Northam was elected the next Governor of Virginia by an 8.9% margin, locking down over 230,000 more votes than his Republican counterpart Ed Gillespie. Turnout was the highest it’s been in 20 years for a Virginia gubernatorial race. Northam won 75% of minority voters, an increase from the 69% Governor Terry McAuliffe won in 2013. And perhaps most notably, while Ed Gillespie’s candidacy decreased the Republican share of college-educated voters from 40% (2013) to 36%, Ralph Northam locked down 63% of college-educated voters as opposed to 53% in 2013.
Democrats won down-ballot too. Justin Fairfax won Lt. Governor and became the first black person elected to statewide office in 30 years. Democrat Mark Herring won reelection as Virginia’s Attorney General. And as of the time this piece is published, the majority of the Virginia House of Delegates is still up for grabs. In a stunning surge, 14 Democrats have won seats, with a few races still outstanding. The state legislature currently stands at 48 (+14) Democrats— 47 Republicans. The GOP had 66 seats going into this election.
Rantt interviewed then-candidate Northam in Loudon County in the days leading up to the election. We saw the enthusiasm for his candidacy, but even we didn’t expect the huge margins he’d win by in Loudon County and the rest of the Northern Virginia suburbs, where Northam beat Gillespie by a 260,000 vote margin.
So…how’d they do it? We spoke to David Turner, Communications Director for Ralph Northam, and got the inside story of how this campaign shifted a national narrative from one of Democratic division to one of Democratic triumph.
A lightly edited transcript of my November 9th phone call with Turner is below
AHMED BABA: I live in Virginia so you guys have been calling me and coming by my door constantly.
DAVID TURNER: [laughs] I’m glad.
BABA: That specifically is what I think could’ve put you over. What strategies did you implement that made your ground game so effective?
TURNER: I got to give credit to two people in particular, who I’m trying to give credit everywhere I can: Lauren Brainerd who is our Coordinated Director and Jenny Glass, who is our Field Director. Really just two top notch, awesome people who built a program to funnel that energy that Democrats had after the 2016 election, into an efficient organization so that we were turning out people we wanted to turn out. I can’t say enough about the organization they built. We ended up knocking right around four million doors which is double what they did in 2016. We made 3.3 million phone calls, which is just under what they did in 2016. That’s because we put a heavy focus on door knocking. We wanted our volunteers to feel like they were a part of the program, that they were engaged, that they understood who Ralph was.
I can’t emphasize enough, Ralph was always on the ground talking to these folks. They felt they had a personal connection with the candidate and I think that helped drive enthusiasm and helped get more volunteers. We had twenty-one thousand volunteers in the last four days. Which is an extraordinary number.
So I think that, one, obviously Ralph deserves all the credit. He’s the candidate. He inspired folks to come out and work. He inspired folks to repudiate Donald Trump and Ed Gillespie’s bigoted message. But also, Lauren Brainerd and Jenny Glass, really built an incredible organization and hats off to them.
BABA: Given your huge surge in volunteers and the enthusiasm that was coming out of Virginia how vital were Resistance groups like Indivisible and other groups like that to your grassroots initiatives? Did they play any role?
TURNER: I think both groups were really effective at taking the energy right after 2016 and giving people an outlet and also giving people ownership. I can’t speak specifically to all those programs because I wasn’t heavily involved with them but I can say that what I heard and what I saw particularly in the primary with these groups, well organized, doing well-attended events, focusing on local races. I think that was definitely important.
But I think people are underestimating how important the House Dems Caucus was. Trent Armitage was the Executive Director over there and also just how coordinated…We worked with twenty House delegate campaigns in a coordinated fashion. That’s more than ever, more than anyone’s done in Virginia before. It was six more than 2013. I think one of the reasons why everything worked together well was because everybody was rowing in the same direction and that helped make sure that a rising tide would lift all votes.
BABA: It’s interesting you brought up the delegates, because I had a question about that. You ran strong candidates down-ballot and that definitely played a role. I know you said you supported twenty candidates down-ballot, in what ways did you support them and did you see any enthusiasm for the down-ballot candidates trickle up to the whole ticket?
TURNER: I would need to look through the data more, but I think obviously having more competitive races is better. It creates more enthusiasm, it helps boost turnout. I think that’s pretty self-evident on its face. I’d like to go through the data more, just to see what the differences were in vote share between the top of the ticket and these House delegate races. I think that will be a telling indicator of if there was an up draft or down draft. In the end, I go back to the idea that what was most important is not who helped who win but the fact that everybody was swimming in the same direction.
BABA: Yeah, you supported twenty candidates, so if you could speak a little on the coordination.
TURNER: We coordinated data sharing, volunteers, packets — when you have 21,000 people and hundreds of staff and you need to organize the logistics of all that, making sure that people aren’t doing duplicative work is vital in maximizing your ability to turn out doors. It’s one of the reasons we were able to knock nearly 4 million doors because we weren’t overlapping with other groups. We were all working together towards the same goal. I think that is one of the reasons why you saw a bigger turnout because people were really efficient. It was incredible to watch.
People on the ground understood why that was important, volunteers understood why that was important. They didn’t want to do duplicative work, they wanted to make sure their time and energy was going toward something that was helpful. And so I really think that was one of the reasons you saw this huge turnout, is that people had an understanding of how down-ballot was important not just for winning those seats, obviously that was important, but also because it would help give Democrats more leverage in the legislature. It would help Ralph Northam govern better. We’ve seen over the past four years Terry McAuliffe hasn’t been able to expand Medicaid because of the House of Delegates, primarily. I think that now you’re going to see a different tone because you got more people who are going to be allies of Ralph.
BABA: Would you say that voters were more motivated by the strong Democratic candidates you ran or anti-Trump sentiment? I know you have more data to pore through but what would you say was more of the driving factor having been on the ground?
TURNER: Donald Trump has really done a remarkable job in motivating our base. So I cheer for him and I thank him tremendously. But I do think one of the things we saw was when we ran strong candidates we did better, right. And this year with so many people running, so many quality candidates — I think of Chris Hurst down in Blacksburg; I think of Danica Roem, the first transgender candidate to be elected to a state legislature and the campaign she ran being hyper-local, focused on the issues, folks who were focused on healthcare. I think Ayala is another one I think of who is like that or Jennifer Carroll Foy. These folks, they ran really good campaigns. They ran hard campaigns. They were out on the trail every day. They raised the money they needed to raise in order to be competitive. It was partially Trump, but it was also because we had people who were doing the work you need to do to win elections and they we were able to take advantage of the fact that people didn’t like Trump. It’s not a guarantee that Trump alone was going to motivate people to turn out, you needed to have candidates people could believe in and I think that’s one of the reasons we why were so successful on Tuesday.
BABA: Yeah, for sure. And of course, a lot of people are interested in, going into that final day on election night, did you have the vibe that Gillespie’s tactics were backfiring and did you expect such a huge victory?
TURNER: No. Our polls saw us trending up, so I would say that we did see us making gains. Actually, our unweighted poll during the last poll we took which we got back Monday, I think it had us up by 8. If we hadn’t believed the electorate was going to be more conservative than it was, we were getting pretty close to right. I think what Democrats need to do going forward is you got to prepare for the worst. You have to prepare for an electorate that’s going to be maybe more Conservative than you would hope for. Make sure you’re messaging to folks to give them a reason to turn out. Everybody knew that Ralph Northam was who he was: an Army veteran, a doctor, somebody who worked in a children’s hospice. Everybody believed in him because they trusted him as a man of character, of decency and competency. I think if you present a vision of, ‘no, we’re going to provide you a government that works for you, not one that is the chaos we’re seeing out of Washington, D.C.,’ that people are going to respond to that.
BABA: That first part of the question I think really touches on that, is the what amplified Northam’s differentiating factors was Gillespie’s tactics. You said you noticed that they [Gillespie’s tactics] were backfiring.
TURNER: Yeah, I think it was telling that Ed Gillespie didn’t run his bigoted MS-13 ads for the last two and a half weeks. I think we saw consolidation of minority support. But we also saw Independents and suburban whites turned off by it too because their neighbors are communities of color. They interact with communities of color every day. They understand that what was being presented to them on TV with Gillespie’s advertising wasn’t the reality. And I think that they felt offended that their friends and neighbors were being compared to thugs and gang members. They found that despicable and they liked it when Ralph called it such. I think, one, it’s calling things out for what they are, two, it’s being authentic, and three, being willing to understand that you shouldn’t run away from every fight.
BABA: I have one more question for you, just because this is what’s on everyone’s mind. What advice would you give to other Democratic campaigns heading into 2018?
TURNER: I think, one, using Trump as a scalpel as opposed to a machete. Understand that you have to connect the man to his policies and how they’re going to hurt voters. You got to make everything about the voter and how their lives are going to change by either something good happening or bad happening. Or what the two different visions means for them and their families. So that’s what we did in every ad. We used Trump, but we also talked about the environment and his policies on the environment, taking away healthcare. We talked about the instability in government and how that was affecting Virginia. That’s part one, I think that part two is be authentic — be who you are. For example, ‘narcissistic maniac,’ I think people find that ad memorable, and it was Ralph’s line. Ralph thought of it, so I think one of the reasons it worked was because Ralph was delivering what he believed. And three, make sure people know who your candidates are. Make sure that you’re telling a compelling story about them and why they want to be in the elected position they’re running for. Whether it’s governor or city council, you need to give them the explanation of who you are why you want to run what you’re running for.
BABA: Thank you David, for taking this call. We appreciate it.
Special thanks to the incredible Abigail Barker (Rantt Editor), for transcribing this interview