WINCHESTER, VA. — The melodic sounds of a street musician’s trumpet echo through every corner of this old Virginia town as locals shop or make their way to lunch. Daren Johnson has been blowing his horn at the pedestrian mall in the shadow of the Shenandoah Valley Civil War Museum for over an hour. He performs for two reasons: “To make some extra cash and to share a little bit of lightness. We are exhausted as a country,” he said, “a direct result of last year’s election.”
Johnson and his wife were tireless volunteers for Hillary Clinton last year. They knocked on doors, they made phone calls, they were invested. When she lost, the couple was devastated. Now, Johnson doesn’t even know who is running for governor.
“I’ve voted every year for the past 46 years, always informed, always enthusiastic, always involved in the process. Now, it’s really hard to care,” Johnson said.
The upcoming gubernatorial election in Virginia is one of only two happening in the country this year, along with New Jersey. The race pits Ralph Northam, the current lieutenant governor and a Democrat, against Ed Gillespie, a former George W. Bush administration official and Republican National Committee chairman.
Northam should have a comfortable lead right now. Terry McAuliffe, the outgoing governor he currently serves under, is popular and generally seen as successful. Plus, Virginians have historically elected governors from the party opposite to a president who’s won the year before. In 2001, Democrat Mark Warner won one year after George W. Bush was elected; in 2009, Republican Bob McDonnell won one year after Barack Obama took the state.
And, of course, there is the Trump factor — Clinton beat the president comfortably here, although almost all of her vote came from the heavily populated, heavily liberal Northern Virginia suburbs with the rest of the state (mostly rural, mostly forgotten) going for Donald Trump with the exception of the state capital and some college towns.
But Northam’s numbers are not up — in fact, the last three public polls show next month’s race within the margin of error. That includes a Monmouth University poll released Tuesday, which gives Gillespie the edge over Northam among likely voters by 48 to 47 percent.
Both parties have pulled out all the stops for this race. Ex-president Obama was here for a rally; George W. Bush for a fundraiser. Joe Biden’s stumped here, so has Vice President Mike Pence. So far, Trump has only tweeted about the race: “Ralph Northam, who is running for Governor of Virginia, is fighting for the violent MS-13 killer gangs & sanctuary cities. Vote Ed Gillespie!”
Gillespie has avoided broadcasting that endorsement on the campaign trail. There are no mentions of it on his website. After Trump claimed there were “some very fine people on both sides” of a neo-Nazi protest in nearby Charlottesville that left one woman dead, Gillespie’s spokesman Dave Abrams said the candidate “did not see any fine people on the side of the white nationalists and neo-Nazis.” But Gillespie has not directly criticized Trump either.
‘Here our issues are pretty straightforward — transportation, education and health care’
Meanwhile Stephanie Vaughan, the Democratic county chairperson in Winchester, says the party is working hard to clinch victory by appealing to a wider crowd. “We very much try to have a big-tent approach here. We welcome moderate, progressive and conservative Democrats into our party, and we encourage everyone to listen to our message,” she said. “Here our issues are pretty straightforward — transportation, education and health care.”
Behind the counter of her coffee shop, Lanita Byrne said she did not vote for Trump and loved Clinton but is completely undecided on which candidate she wants for governor. “Honestly it comes down to who is best on taxes. I think there should be less burdens and more opportunities for small-business owners,” she said.
Clark Hansbarger, meanwhile, said he saw the Trump win coming from a mile away. “I kept telling all of my liberal friends, and they would just laugh at me. They thought no way,” he said. Hansbarger then chuckles and admits he, too, is a liberal. “But, look, I travel a lot. When Trump spoke about carnage in his inaugural address, I’ve seen exactly what he meant all over the country,” he said.
Johnson begins to play his trumpet again, then stops. “I guess I’ll vote,” he admits. “But honestly I am sick of both parties . . . and I am not voting straight ticket, that is for sure.”
Certainly the Democrats are the ones with the most to lose. The party has had a year to craft the perfect message offering voters an alternative to the Republicans in power. Have they succeeded? Maybe. If not, the rejection could be almost as bad as the pain they were dealt nationally last year. Once again, a race easily within their grasp could slip through their fingers because they failed to excite their base.