Gov. Ralph Northam is launching an earnest return to the political campaign scene with a new digital ad and events with more than a dozen Democratic candidates scheduled between now and Election Day.
Northam had all but stopped politicking in the aftermath of the blackface scandal that shook his administration Feb. 1, halting all fundraising and political events months ahead of the state’s pivotal Nov. 5 elections.
With his approval-disapproval ratings improved since February, Northam kicked off an extensive campaign tour with stops in Henrico and Chesterfield counties this past weekend. Northam spoke to volunteers getting ready to canvass for Del. Debra Rodman, Rodney Willett, Ghazala Hashmi and Sheila Bynum-Coleman — all vying for Richmond-area General Assembly seats.
Northam also launched a digital ad promoting legislation enacted during his administration and calling on voters to elect Democratic majorities to complete that work. (Northam’s team declined to say how much it is spending to distribute the ad.)
“If you look at what all these candidates are running on, they’re running on the expansion of Medicaid, health care, teacher pay raises. They’re running on common sense gun safety legislation. That’s all part of Ralph Northam’s agenda that he has pushed for two years,” said Mark Bergman, the director of Northam’s political fundraising arm.
“Candidates have seen that agenda has been very successful. Voters approve of the direction the commonwealth is headed.”
Asked to comment on Northam’s political re-emergence, Garren Shipley, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, alluded to the Feb. 2 news conference in which the governor said that he had used shoe polish to darken his face for a 1984 Michael Jackson dance contest in Texas and that he knows how to moonwalk.
“Given how many Democrats walked back their calls for his resignation, we are not surprised he is walking back out on the trail,” Shipley said. “He is, after all, very good at walking back.”
Bergman cited an Oct. 4 Washington Post-Schar School poll that reported Northam’s approval rating at 47%. The same poll found that 7 in 10 Democrats approve of the job Northam is doing — suggesting that Northam’s visibility might encourage, not suppress, Democratic turnout.
“It’s why candidates are working directly with the governor,” he added. (The poll included 876 people and had a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.)
First lady Pam Northam — who faced her own racial controversy in February — is also part of the elections push. This past weekend, the governor’s wife attended canvassing launches for Senate candidate Missy Cotter Smasal in Virginia Beach and House candidate Martha Mugler in Hampton. She knocked on doors with House candidate Phil Hernandez on the Eastern Shore and attended a church service in Suffolk with House candidate Clint Jenkins.
Northam’s own advisers acknowledge his involvement in legislative campaigns contrasts starkly with his prospects in the winter, when elected officials and party leaders statewide called on him to leave office.
Northam resisted the calls, vowing to make racial equity the focus of his administration.
Democratic lawmakers and challengers began warming up to Northam in the spring, appearing next to him at public events tied to legislation. A first foray into campaigning in April — a barbecue for Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax — ended with a protest and a last-minute cancellation by Northam.
Nonetheless, fundraising resumed, though at levels far below that of his predecessors in a legislative election year. By the summer, Democratic legislative candidates across the state had begun to accept contributions from Northam directly.
Northam’s political action committee, The Way Ahead, raised $401,000 in the quarter that covers July, August and September.
“By the end of the race, the PAC will have given out a million and a half dollars, and we will have supported the coordinated campaign and candidates up and down the ballot,” Bergman said.
“That’s not as much as previous governors have done, but it’s more than what was expected of us. ... We’re happy with where we are.”
Sen. Glen Sturtevant, R-Chesterfield, has criticized his challenger, Hashmi, for joining state and national Democrats in calling for Northam to resign but then changing her position months later, after accepting $25,000 from the governor’s PAC.
On Friday, Northam will attend a fundraiser for Alex Askew, who is running for the seat vacated by Del. Cheryl Turpin, D-Virginia Beach. Turpin is running for the seat of retiring state Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach.
Most of Northam’s other appearances will consist of canvassing launches, sessions meant to hype up volunteers ahead of knocking on doors.
On Saturday, he’ll attend canvass launches in Virginia Beach for Cotter Smasal, Turpin, Askew, Hernandez, House candidate Karen Mallard, Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler and House candidate Nancy Guy.
He’s also attending a Saturday fundraiser for Cotter Smasal, and attending a church service on Sunday with Hernandez. Also Sunday, the first lady will attend a church service with Bynum-Coleman in Chesterfield.
The Saturday before the election, Northam will campaign for candidates in Henrico and Loudoun counties and Fredericksburg. The Sunday before Election Day, he’ll spend most of the day with Jenkins, who is taking on Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk.