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Controversies harm Northam's effort to turn out minority voters in Virginia governor's race

Democrats' biggest worry in the Virginia governor's race has long been that minority voters wouldn't turn out in full force to support Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam.

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Eric Bradner (CNN)
WASHINGTON (CNN) — Democrats' biggest worry in the Virginia governor's race has long been that minority voters wouldn't turn out in full force to support Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam.

Now, a series of stumbles in the race's final week have threatened his campaign -- potentially hurting Northam with some of those minority voters and energizing President Donald Trump's supporters who had been lukewarm about Republican candidate Ed Gillespie.

Northam has spent the closing days of the race attempting to energize minority voters, particularly black voters in Richmond and eastern Virginia. He campaigned Wednesday night with two of the most prominent black Democrats, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, the Democratic National Committee deputy chair.

"This country is looking for hope," Booker said in Arlington. "This whole country right now is waiting to see what is going to happen in Virginia on Tuesday."

Late last month, former President Barack Obama held an event in Richmond warning Democrats against complacency in non-presidential elections.

Meanwhile, outside groups have focused on minority turnout. BlackPAC is spending $1.1 million on field organizing, mail, digital and radio advertisements. Justin Fairfax, the 38-year-old Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, will canvass with the group Sunday in Hampton Roads.

NextGen America, the group funded by billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, has worked with CASA in Action, America's Voice and the Center for Community Change Action on a field program targeting Latino and immigrant voters.

Those involved in the efforts said Virginia will provide key lessons for Democrats about how to mobilize minority voters in the 2018 midterm elections, when the Democratic electorate has typically dropped off from presidential elections more than the GOP electorate.

"I can't tell you how many times we were knocking on a door two weeks ago or three weeks ago, and voters didn't even know the ads were out there -- didn't even know that there was a Virginia election. There has to be early investment in Latino and immigrant voters, because the ways that they find information is different than the typical voter," said Grecia Lima, the deputy national political director at the Center for Community Change Action.

But two issues have dogged Northam in the closing days of the race as Gillespie's campaign works to cast him as offensive to white Trump voters.

First was a minute-long Latino Victory Fund ad, backed by only $30,000 in television spending. It featured four minority children being chased through their neighborhoods by a white man driving a pick-up truck with a Confederate flag and a Gillespie bumper sticker.

The ad gave Gillespie's camp an opening to accuse Democrats of painting all conservatives as racist. His campaign said online fundraising had skyrocketed in the wake of news reports about the ad, and has made a point of highlighting it as an example of what it sees as Northam's disdain for Trump supporters in the race's closing days.

In an interview with The Daily Caller, Gillespie said his family was bothered by the ad.

"They are infuriated," he said. "And they're disgusted. And I understand that. I think it's always harder on the family than on the candidate himself or herself, but it's not pleasant, and it's the kind of thing that makes good people not want to run for public office."

Then, on Wednesday night, Northam was pressed by reporters on sanctuary cities, where local law enforcement officials don't help enforce federal immigration laws.

Virginia has no such cities. And when the state legislature sought to ban them, Northam, in his role as president of the state senate, cast a tie-breaking vote to defeat the bill.

That vote led Gillespie to air ads for six weeks accusing Northam of opening the door for MS-13 gangs to rampage through Virginia's cities, featuring the words "Kill, Rape, Control."

On Wednesday, Northam told reporters that he opposes sanctuary cities -- and would actually support the bill that his vote killed were Virginia to ever actually have one.

"I think what's important to understand is if a city declares itself a sanctuary city, and ... the General Assembly passes a law saying that's unlawful, I would support that," Northam told reporters Wednesday night.

It's led to a new round of accusations of flip-flopping by Gillespie's campaign and his allies. The Virginia GOP said in an email to reporters Thursday that Northam needs to answer "specific and very important," questions to clarify why he voted against the bill banning sanctuary cities.

Liberal group leaves campaign

By announcing his opposition to sanctuary cities, Northam also triggered backlash from the left.

Democracy For America, which had spearheaded a calling program for Democratic candidates as part of progressives' coordinated effort in Virginia, announced that it was dropping its support for Northam and only working to help the rest of the ticket.

"Ralph Northam's gutless, politically senseless, and morally debased decision yesterday to openly backtrack on his commitment to standing up for immigrant families is a picture-perfect example of why Democracy for America never endorsed him in the primary and focused the entirety of our efforts in Virginia on down-ticket races, like Justin Fairfax's campaign for lieutenant governor. It's also why, today, we're announcing that we will no longer do any work to directly aid Northam's gubernatorial efforts," DFA executive director Charles Chamberlain said in a statement.

It re-opened wounds from an October clash when Northam's campaign omitted Fairfax from literature being handed out by the Laborers' International Union of North America, which had asked for the omission because it hadn't endorsed Fairfax. Leaving his black ticketmate off literature that featured Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring provoked outrage, particularly on social media.

Chamberlain called that a "racist action" but said DFA didn't discuss it publicly "for the sake of Democratic comity." But opposition sanctuary cities was too far, he said, calling Northam's campaign "disastrous, racist, and voter-turnout-depressing."

"Let's be really clear: If Ralph Northam wins next Tuesday, it won't be because he publicly backtracked on his commitment to protecting immigrant families, but in spite of it," Chamberlain said. "And, if he loses, the blame should be placed squarely on the shoulders of the consultants who urged the campaign to cave on core Democratic values in the face of a virulently racist Republican campaign - and whose obsession with flipping white, Republican-leaning votes and ignoring voters of color has consistently failed."

Polls all over the place

The race has swung wildly in the polls, with some showing Northam holding a small lead and others showing him ahead of Gillespie by double digits. A Suffolk University poll out this week showed Northam's lead at 4 percentage points, while a Washington Post/Schar Center poll had him up by 5 points.

But a Quinnipiac University poll this week pegged Northam's edge at 17 points.

That it's Northam on the defensive in the Virginia governor's race is a remarkable turn in a contest that has seen Gillespie air a series of ads that Latino and immigration groups, and many Republicans, have seen as stoking racial tensions.

Gillespie's ads have attacked Northam for Gov. Terry McAuliffe's decision to automatically restore the voting rights of felons who have completed their sentences, and for arguing for the removal of Confederate monuments. Gillespie says in one ad that he's for keeping those statues up, and calls it "a big difference in November."

"So the last 3 ads by @EdWGillespie are: gangs, people getting their voting rights back, and monuments. The dog whistle is a little loud, Ed," tweeted Doug Stafford, an adviser to Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul.

Veteran Republican strategist Al Cardenas tweeted a week ago: "Ed Gillespie used to be the champion of diversity in GOP...."

But Cardenas hit Northam days later, when the Latino Victory Fund ad began to air. He tweeted: "This is worse. Shame on Northam & his campaign."

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