Ralph Northam and the Democratic Opportunity - by Greer Clem

On November 7, 2017, one year and a day after the 2016 election that rattled the foundation of American politics, Virginia will hold a gubernatorial election that the Democrats desperately need to win. Virginia was the only southern state not won by Donald Trump; in fact Hillary Clinton secured Virginia with a five point lead. It is a landscape where both deeply rooted conservatism and blossoming liberalism coexist. Perhaps more importantly, it is an arena in which democrats have the opportunity to demonstrate that their party does not have a limited reach.

The Democratic Party has been scrambling to determine its cohesiveness in the wake of the 2016 election. In large part, the GOP faces similar issues, but it’s a problem you can avoid when you have a sitting president and control of Congress. Dems, on the other hand, are under the gun to realign the party identity before House elections in 2018 and the next presidential election in 2020. Virginia, whose gubernatorial race has in many ways been downplayed, is a battleground state where Dems have the opportunity to start rebuilding.  

Ralph Northam, the democratic candidate for governor, in particular offers the Democratic Party some unique opportunities. Northam is not what the right would call a “sheltered coastal elite.” Northam grew up on a farm in Onancock Virginia, attended the Virginia Military Institute and East Virginia Medical School and then went on to serve in the Army as a physician. He has since worked as a pediatric neurologist in Norfolk, VA. Northam is, in short, a born and bred Virginian. He is an all-American hero, someone who has sought to make his state a better place and to give back to his country. He comes with no Wall Street baggage, no DC-based criticism; basically, if need be, he can be boiled down to a red-blooded American success story.

The debate within the Democratic Party about what kind of candidates we need has been widespread. Many say we need more Bernie bros (and girls), people who aren’t afraid to push the liberal agenda envelope, and that we underestimated the reach of Bernie during the 2016 election. This is, in part, true. Others say we need more moderate candidates who can win back some people who voted for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016. They argue that we need to be able to speak to average American families, people who are more concerned with paying their bills, making sure their neighborhoods have good public schools, and that we need to focus less on a more global liberal agenda. This is, in part, true.

The beautiful thing about Ralph Northam is that he bridges both these gaps. He is a much needed reassurance that a candidate can accomplish both agendas. Northam can be fiscally conservative and has built his political career on focusing on local issues unique to his state. He shares the every-man’s goals of financial security while at the same time being a steadfast supporter of liberal policies. He is pro-choice, believes in climate change and wants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, supports the ACA, and favors inclusive immigration policies. He has that unique ability to convey his thoughts in the every-man’s way while still talking about hot-button issues. Make no mistake, this is a rare combination.

So why hasn’t he received more coverage? Well, hopefully soon that will change after Obama gave a speech last night supporting his candidacy, but thus far the coverage on Northam has been relatively meek. Perhaps part of his problem is what I will call the “Tim Kaine Condition” – Northam just seems very…normal. He looks like any other white middle class dad you would see at school pickup. Tim Kaine, an exceptional VP candidate, was often criticized during 2016 for lacking any sort of draw. He seemed like a really nice guy, someone you would want to have coffee with, but he lacked a political bite.

But part of having that political bite comes from the support of the media. Bernie bros were in large part responsible for making Bernie seem cool. If you listen to Bernie talk, his ideas are great, but he sounds like your Jewish grandpa arguing with the waiter at Katz Delicatessen. Nasty women seized criticism against Hillary and turned it into a movement, even while she was receiving criticism for flat responses. My point is this: if we want Northam to win, we have to make him winnable. The media, Twitter, grassroots movements – all of these facets have the ability to turn Northam into, not just the right candidate, but the exciting candidate to vote for.

The Democratic Party should seize this opportunity to inject some life into the election process. We can’t be wary in all elections; in fact, if we run races timidly we won’t win them. Run scared, but run like you mean it, like you believe you can win. I believe Ralph Northam to be a good man and a good candidate, but more than that, I believe the Democratic Party can make him great. Let’s start preparing for 2018 and 2020, not just by choosing our platform but by getting excited about what we believe in and who carries our message. November 7 in Virginia is a great place to start.

Greer Clem