Lessons from Va.: The Campaign Managers Speak
By Josh Kurtz
A few days after every presidential election, Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government gathers the top strategists from both campaigns together to dissect the campaign.
George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Management has established the same tradition in Virginia. So on Monday night, the campaign managers for Gov.-elect Ralph Northam (D) and his vanquished opponent, former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, came together to offer their analysis of the race.
Northam won by a surprising 9 points, and Democrats, fueled by suburban voters and antipathy toward President Trump, made stunning gains in the House of Delegates
Each of the managers had worked for their candidates previously: Brad Komar, Northam’s manager, held a similar position in 2013, when he ran Northam’s campaign for lieutenant governor. Chris Leavitt managed Gillespie’s hair-thin loss in the 2014 U.S. Senate election and the Republican’s campaign this time around.
There were plenty of nuggets for political observers heading into the 2018 gubernatorial campaign in Maryland. Among them:
— Organization, organization, organization. Northam’s campaign and the organizations supporting him, like labor unions, environmental groups and women’s health advocates, knocked on 3.9 million doors during the course of the campaign, Komar said. That’s twice as many doors as the Hillary Clinton for president campaign hit in 2016 — and four times as many as outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s (D) troops hit in 2013.
“It was a Herculean effort,” Komar said.
— Navigating the primary. Northam’s camp was dismayed when former Congressman Tom Perriello jumped into the Democratic primary at the last minute. But Komar said Northam was also prepared — even though he may not have been as purely progressive as Perriello. He had long-established relationships with the key activist groups in the Democratic coalition and benefited from the fact that McAuliffe had a 90 percent approval rating among likely Democratic primary voters.
Komar said Northam was pitching himself as “the things get done Democrat familiar with Richmond. We felt we were in a very strong position to win” the primary.
Komar added that Northam had labeled Trump “a narcissistic maniac” — something that was sure to appeal to progressive Democrats.
“It wasn’t something a bunch of political consultants came up with on a whiteboard,” he said.
Nevertheless, when Perriello entered the race, “we were ecstatic,” Leavitt recalled. “I ran around the office a few times.”
Leavitt said Northam had few obvious liabilities, and the GOP figured Perriello would pull Northam to the left, creating an opening for Gillespie in the general election.
Gillespie, meanwhile, had a primary of his own, against Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, and state Sen. Frank Wagner. Even though Stewart was a vocal supporter of Trump and took positions that even some Republicans found extreme, “we decided not to go negative” in the primary, Leavitt said.
While Stewart ran surprisingly close to Gillespie in the primary and did not publicly back him until weeks before the general election, party unity was not a problem, and most of Stewart’s supporters quickly transferred to Gillespie, Leavitt said.
— The Trump Factor. Although exit polls showed Trump was a major factor in getting Democrats to the polls — which contributed to Northam’s surprising comfortable victory — Gillespie, who had once tried to distance himself from the president, seemed to close the gap in the campaign’s final weeks by emphasizing some of the same issues Trump does, including illegal immigration. Some Republican strategists hailed the tactic, calling it “Trumpism without Trump.”
“Trumpism without Trump I thought was a win for us,” Komar said. “The largest gravitational force in politics is the president of the United States.”
He added that the myriad controversies surrounding Trump provided Democrats with plenty of attack lines. “Any day you’re on offense in politics is a good thing,” he said.
Leavitt conceded that Trump was a liability and that the campaign never contemplated asking him to appear as a surrogate.
“We never wanted to nationalize the race and we felt we would elevate it if we brought him in,” he said.
But even without Trump, “whoever was in the White House, we had a powerful story to tell,” Komar said. “And you’d see a lot of ‘Army doctor vs. lobbyist’ no matter who was in the White House.
— Health care reform. The attempts by Trump and congressional Republicans to undo Obamacare was a major issue in the campaign and accrued to the Democrats’ benefit.
“I think this was a disaster for Republicans,” Komar said. “Ralph Northam’s a doctor — talk about credibility on such a critical issue.”
“It was always at the top of our polling as an issue,” Leavitt said. “It wasn’t really an issue where we wanted to debate. We wanted to turn the conversation to something else. It was really a problem with what was going on in Washington.”
— The media landscape. Asked whether TV advertising and direct mail were becoming extinct as ways to reach voters in the age of social media, the managers argued that while their importance is fading, they’re still useful tools, because 59 percent of general election voters were 50 or older.
“To cede any medium would be a disaster,” Komar said.
Asked about the decline of print journalism, Leavitt lamented that only four of the campaign’s 21 policy proposals got any kind of meaningful coverage in Virginia newspapers.
“That says something about the amount of reporters on the ground willing to get into the weeds on this,” he said. “It’s frustrating that there are not more of them at times.”
Komar said that while TV coverage was vital to the candidates’ success, “print journalism really helps inform a media narrative.”
— Trust the polls? For most of the campaign, polls showed Northam with a small but durable lead. Gillespie closed the gap at the end and was even slightly ahead in some late surveys. Instead, Northam had the biggest victory for any Democratic gubernatorial nominee in Virginia since 1985.
“We never saw it coming,” Leavitt said.
Virginia Republicans, he said, “have really become accustomed to these public polls” that show Democrats with an advantage. “We didn’t catch the wave. We thought we were staring down a potential upset.”
Listen to the full broadcast here.