RICHMOND, Va. — The eyes of politicos from across the country are fixed upon Virginia’s state capitol — this Jeffersonian temple — and the rest of the Commonwealth, as voters decide who will lead the state for the next four years.
In the months leading up to the election, the two major party candidates have struck similar tones on some issues, and in the wake of the divisive 2016 presidential race, Ralph Northam and Ed Gillespie had been praised for the civility of their debates, and the lack of personal attacks.
But in the last few weeks, the gloves have come off, and the tensions have sharpened.
Accusations of fear mongering and race baiting have flown from both sides. Campaign ads have portrayed the opposition as dishonest, unethical, or worse.
But what’s the truth about these two men? Where did they come from, and how did they get here?
Northam enters politics a decade ago
Ralph Northam accepted the nomination of the Democratic party almost exactly 10 years after he first got into politics.
A native of Virginia’s eastern shore, Northam was born in the tiny town of Nassawadox in 1959. The son of a judge and a nurse, he was raised on a farm in the equally small Onancock.
For hundreds of years, Northam’s family has lived on this small stretch of land that separates the Chesapeake bay from the Atlantic Ocean.
The teenaged Northam succeeded academically and in sports, especially on the baseball diamond.
But as high school came to an end, Northam chose a path that had the potential to send him overseas, and far away from home.
He enrolled at the Virginia Military Institute; where in his senior year he won his first election.
“I just know that he was well liked, well regarded, and by the people who were his classmates,” said Tom Slater a VMI graduate and close friend of Northam. “His brother rats, as we call them, always had great respect for how he conducted himself, his judgment, and of course he was an outstanding student, did very well academically.”
“VMI has a very strict honor code, has always had a very strict honor code, a cadet shall not lie, cheat, or steal,” said
Northam was elected president of the honor court, the body of students that decides things like whether a cadet found guilty of some kind of infraction, should be kicked out of school.
“The person that you ask to be the head of the honor court – it’s not Mr. Popularity necessarily; it’s not a student council election, it’s not most likely to succeed – you pick the person to be the head of the honor court that you have the most significant respect for their maturity and their judgment and their fairness,” said U.S. Senator Tim Kaine, who helped steer Northam on the route that’s led to this election.
Why Northam entered the political arena
Both Ralph Northam and his Republican opponent Ed Gillespie have credited their early years out of college with shaping their journey toward seeking public office. Their paths have been very different.
After graduation, Second Lieutenant Ralph Northam was called to practice medicine.
He attended Eastern Virginia Medical School, and would later become a pediatric neurologist. He met his Pam during his residency.
Northam’s military obligations would take him to Germany in the early 1990s, where he treated soldiers who had been wounded on the battlefield during Operation Desert Storm.
After eight years of active duty service, he returned home and began practicing at a children’s hospital in Norfolk.
Senator Kaine sees how Northam’s previous work as a doctor brings skills integral in politics.
“Ralph has had to be a good listener, and he’s had to convey often very difficult news without whitewashing it but also offering some hope and some options and a life of doing that, of dealing with people when they’re really stressed out and really down,” Kaine said.
Northam and Gillespie are now heavy hitters in Virginia political circles. It took years of successes and setbacks to get both men to the point of becoming their party’s nominee for governor.
Northam enters politics
In 2007, Ralph Northam decided to try his surgical hand at politics.
A self-described moderate who had voted twice for George W. Bush, Northam ran as a Democrat in Virginia’s 6th district, which includes parts of Norfolk, Virginia Beach, and the Eastern Shore where he grew up.
Northam, who ran a well-financed campaign, pulled an upset over state senator Nick Rerras, who had been in the General Assembly for eight years.
Political expert Dr. Bob Holsworth thinks voters were attracted to the idea of someone who wasn’t previously entrenched in politics, a theme that played out recently in the national election.
“I think Northam’s background as a doctor and as a physician, as someone who entered that debate not just as a politician, but saying here’s what I think is reasonable from a physician’s perspective has posed him in a very good step in democratic politics,” Holsworth said.
His victory helped democrats reclaim control of the state senate, but he arrived in Richmond without much fanfare.
“He was very much the old archetype of a southern gentleman, he was soft spoken, didn’t raise his voice a lot on the floor, didn’t really, uh, he wasn’t one of the really impassioned debaters that you’d see, as many freshman lawmakers are when they come into the senate,” said Craig Carper, WCVE Senior Capitol Reporter.
Kaine, who was governor at the time, said he noticed Northam’s potential immediately.
“Within three months after coming to the senate, I had him in my office and I said you know I really think you would be a good governor one day, I don’t know whether that’s what you want to do, I have no idea whether Pam would be interested in it, but just in terms of what you bring to the table, i think you’d be a great governor.
But he wasn’t the only one who thought Northam had potential; a number of Republicans began to think they may have found a kindred spirit.
The year 2009 was full of some ups and downs for Northam.From an outsider’s perspective, the sophomore lawmaker was having great success in the General Assembly.
Most notably, he was the architect of a law that is considered one of Kaine’s signature legislative achievements – a statewide smoking ban.
It was something that Kaine had tried to pass twice – unsuccessfully.
For the third and final attempt, he put it in the hands of the doctor from the Eastern Shore, because Northam had the insight to get restaurant owners on board to make it easier to pass.
“…And they oughtta get on board once they know if it’s the same rule for everybody they’re not going to lose customers, so he got it through the legislature, and he did a very good job, even though at that point he’d only been in the senate one year,” Kaine sad.
Almost switching sides?
But during that same session, Northam was growing frustrated.
Upset about a blockade on judicial vacancies in the Hampton Roads area, and a lack of state funding For Eastern Virginia Medical School – where he attended.
Then came the controversial tweet from the head of Virginia’s Republican Party, which read: “big news coming out of the senate: apparently one dem is either switching or leaving the dem caucus. Negotiations for power sharing underway.”
Jeff Frederick was talking about Northam. Had he decided to switch parties, Republicans would have taken control of the senate.
Northam stayed with the Democrats. But how close did he come to leaving?
“Now he says, and there is some evidence of this, that it was more of a negotiating position – he was trying to get more out of the Democrats in the legislature, and he succeeded in some ways, so, who knows, who knows what was true,” said Larry Sabato, Director of the UVA Center for Politics.
“You know, the caucus doors are closed for a reason (laughs) and that’s a key example there,” Carper added.
At the time, the Washington Post reported that Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw escorted Northam to the governor’s office.
Kaine has never previously spoken publicly about what happened during that meeting, until now. He said he believed people who had been in power for a long time were working a line on Northam. Kaine encouraged him to scrutinize some of their motives.
“…But it was frankly during that conversation where I said to him you really need to be thinking about being governor one day, and you know, to get there there’s going to be some moments where, you know, you’re a nice guy but you may have to realize some people are playing tough with you and you’ve gotta play tough back,” Kaine said.
Finding his political voice
If Northam found his calling in medicine, many say he found his political voice in the early part of 2012, when Republican Jill Vogel sponsored Senate Bill 484, which would have required a woman to undergo an ultrasound 24 hours prior to having an abortion.
Because of the bill’s language, the bill likely would have required many women in their first trimester to undergo an internal, transvaginal ultrasound. Criticism mounted, with opponents blasting that provision as invasive and medically unnecessary.
The legislation received national attention, with Democrats, women’s groups, and the pro-choice community accusing state Republicans of waging a “war on women.”
“This wasn’t even like a once a session kind of bill, this was really, you know, kind of a once…in a blue moon kind of thing where you have national media coming down, you have protesters literally lining the walk from the General Assembly building to the capitol, just about every foot of it, which you know, is a fair amount of distance to travel by foot,” Carper recollected.
Northam – the only doctor in the state senate – called the legislation an assault on women’s health care, and an insult to his fellow physicians.
His “expert level authority” had not been really heard as much in that debate, Carper said, and it gave his voice a “little more prominence in the debate.”
Amid the furor, the bill was amended so that it would only require an external ultrasound.
The outrage and concerns ultimately persuaded Vogel to pull her bill, though a similar piece of legislation passed the House, and was eventually signed into law.
Still, Northam had made his presence felt, and it set the stage for him to be elected lieutenant governor the following year.
“…I think this was the issue that made him find his voice,” Carper said.
Run for Lieutenant Governor of Virginia
In 2013, Democrats swept the top three elected offices in Virginia’s state government.
Terry McAuliffe, the longtime democratic operative and fundraiser, was elected governor and State Senator Mark Herring was chosen to be the new Attorney General. Both are from Northern Virginia, and both won very close races over their Republican opponents.
By contrast, Northam, the soft-spoken doctor from the Eastern Shore easily won his race, defeating conservative firebrand E.W. Jackson by more than 10 points.
“I just remember, I mean, his campaign was so basic, I remember I was doing a profile on him for WTVR and he just called me on the phone and said ‘hey, could you just show up at this Starbucks and we can talk,’” former CBS 6 reporter Joe St. George said. “I mean that was, that was his style back then, very folksy, very down to earth, certainly not someone who adapted the D.C. mantra.”
But for the next four years, Northam would largely be overshadowed by McAuliffe and Herring, who would often receive national attention for their statements and actions regarding hot button issues like gay marriage, abortion, healthcare, voting rights, and immigration.
Run for Governor of Virginia
In fact, many believed Herring – not Northam – would be the Democratic candidate for governor in 2017.
“This is one of the big questions that I think historians of Virginia politics are going to look at down the road,” Holsworth said. “But I would tell you that I was a little surprised when Herring decided that he wasn’t going to challenge Northam.”
In September of 2015, Herring announced that in 2017 he would seek re-election as attorney general, not governor.
Herring has said it was a personal decision made for a combination of reasons, including family, and that he loves his current job, But others believe the path for Northam was cleared by someone else.
“I would suspect that the governor might have had something to do with how everything played out,” Carper said.
“Maybe Governor McAuliffe signaled that he felt that Ralph Northam would be a stronger candidate in the general election, largely because he had some more moderate views than Herring did, and maybe it would be easier for him to win,” Holsworth said.
Northam announced his intention to run for governor that November, and for more than a year, it seemed like he would get the Democratic nomination unopposed, until former congressman Tom Periello challenged him.
It was a move that caught many Democrats by surprise, and set the stage for a spirited, and sometimes volatile primary between the two men.
While they agreed on many issues, Periello frequently brought up Northam’s prior support of Bush, and touted his own endorsements from progressive stalwarts like Bernie Sanders and Eizabeth Warren.
But Northam leaned heavily on his record in the General Assembly, his military service, his experience as a physician, and what he called an ability to reach across the aisle when necessary.
While polls had them close, on primary day, Northam cruised to a decisive victory.
The campaign, and the unexpected debate
Campaigns usually expect the unexpected – but sometimes something happens for which no one has prepared. That happened on a sunny Saturday in Charlottesville.
On August 12, chaos exploded in Charlottesville and thrust the issue of hate, and the debate surrounding Virginia’s confederate monuments, to the forefront of the 2017 gubernatorial race.
A rally to save a statue of Robert E. Lee erupted into violence, with white nationalists and counter protesters fighting in the streets.
Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old woman, was killed when police say a white nationalist from Ohio intentionally drove his car into a group of people marching against the takeover of their town by white nationalist groups.
Both Northam and Gillespie have condemned the white supremacists and neo Nazis involved in the bloodshed, but they have taken different positions when it comes to the monuments.
Northam has said they should be removed, and put in museums.
Gillespie has said the statues should stay where they are, but that they should be placed in historical context so people can learn from them.
It’s far from the only issue the candidates disagree on, and in many ways, both men are the product of the current political landscape.
The current political landscape
“Our parties, in the modern period in America, have never been further apart. Democrats are to the left, Republicans are to the right, you can sprinkle in some populism as well, but they don’t agree on anything that really matters,” Sabato said.
But something both sides will admit to, is that this race is a test run for the next set contests in 2018.
“The reason the Virginia race is important is that the national parties are looking for what methods work, both to turn out the base, how to capture swing voters, how cultural issues play or maybe voters care not at all about the values and cultural issues but they care about the pocketbook issues,” said John Dickerson, moderator of Face the Nation on CBS.
Trump’s influence on the Virginia race
Virginia is one of two states electing a new governor this year.
The decision for Virginia voters comes exactly one year after a man selling himself as a D.C. outsider shook up Washington.
The question remains, how will President Trump impact this race?
There is some empirical evidence to suggest the mere presence of a Republican in the White House is good for the Democrats.
“The president has been a factor for 48 years; here in Virginia, we call it The Curse,” McDonnell said.
Typically, the “curse” is that the governor will be of the opposite party of the president.
“[That] would favor Northam but I think that all of us now know that we take conventional wisdom with a grain of salt,” Carper said.
McAuliffe defied the odds four years ago, but if Gillespie is to do the same, he will have done so following a different playbook than he did in 2014.
“He is running a more values based campaign than he did last time, and so it’s a tougher constituency for Gillespie to run where he’s basically trying to appeal both to the trump voter but also a more traditional Republican voter and then also any kind of swing voters that might be out there, so for him the challenge is not so much money but the shifted landscape,” Dickerson said.
The president has tweeted his support of Gillespie, but has not campaigned with him. Sabato said that Trump is the president since “Watergate-burdened Nixon in 1973” not to campaign for his party’s Virginia governor nominee.
Observers said that has likely been Gillespie’s call, that the candidate has tried to embrace some of the tools, techniques and messages of Trump, without fully embracing Trump himself.
“Virginia was the one southern state that didn’t support Trump, and that in fact Hillary Clinton carried Virginia by more than Barack Obama carried it in 2012, and so that has made it sort of a tight rope for Gillespie,” Holsworth said.
Northam has been a vocal critic of the president, in the past referring to him as a narcissistic maniac and a dangerous man.
Though, Northam has recently said he will work with Trump on issues that benefit Virginians, Democrats are hoping the president’s low approval rating will drive voters to the polls.
Path leads to the same place
Northam and Gillespie have taken very different paths in life, but they have led to the same place. Tuesday, the journey ends.
In the days and weeks leading up to the election, each has had a former president campaign on their behalf.
Each has been responsible for attack ads, and each has been attacked. And both have had their donations and financial interests put under the microscope by journalists and watchdogs.
While the candidates’ positions and stances on certain issues have been criticized, the race has largely been free of legitimate scandals.
Friends of both Northam and Gillespie said that’s because of their moral and ethical traits.
“I just think it’s just a tribute to the character that he already had that was shown but he’s also just developed a balance and a maturity and a listening style that’s a little bit nontraditional, so in some ways he’s bringing some non-traditional skills to the position, but I think Virginians would sleep very well at night knowing that somebody with as good a judgment as Ralph Northam was their governor,” Kaine said.
The candidates are the opposite of the candidates who ran in 2016.
“Both Clinton and Trump had sharp edges, and people felt very, very strongly about them,” said Sabato. “If you know Gillespie and Northam at all, you realize they don’t really have sharp edges, some of their policy positions may have sharp edges, but personally they are amiable, they are easy to get along with, I think almost anybody would enjoy having a beer with either one of them.”