In the countdown to the 1981 gubernatorial election, Republican Marshall Coleman wangled a prized endorsement from Mills Godwin, the twice-elected former governor and embodiment of the conservative Establishment.
Its control of Virginia politics was slipping. So were Coleman’s chances of victory.
Coleman needed every vote he could get. A late endorsement by Godwin, who had been cool to Coleman, viewing him as unreliable, could bring home the coalition that had allowed the GOP to hold the governorship for 12 years: Republicans and right-leaning Democrats and independents.
What Coleman had not anticipated was that in securing Godwin’s endorsement, he would assume Godwin’s baggage.
A Democrat-turned-Republican, Godwin pegged his support for Coleman to the candidate’s opposition to renewal of federal voting rights protections and to statehood for Washington, D.C., both of which would amplify traditionally Democratic African American political power.
That Godwin, a former segregationist, invoked such racial themes might have energized some white voters but it energized most black voters more, fueling Coleman’s lopsided defeat to Chuck Robb, who led the first of three consecutive Democratic statewide sweeps.
When it comes to endorsements, be careful what you ask for. You just might get it — in the neck, that is.
Democrats and Republicans are staging high-profile endorsements by marquee names designed not to persuade voters to support their party’s nominees for House of Delegates and Virginia Senate — we’re beyond that — but to spur them to the polls.
In the shorthand of campaigns, it’s GOTV — get out the vote.
A vice president, former vice president, several would-be presidents and a make-believe president have appeared or will be appearing on behalf of General Assembly candidates.
Most of these headliners are Democrats, and they are showing up in metropolitan areas, allowing them to reach the growing pools of Democratic voters clustered there, and — because these are communications hubs — use print and broadcast coverage to reach to Democratic voters elsewhere.
At least four candidates for next year’s Democratic presidential nomination are visiting Virginia for this year’s statehouse candidates: former Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. senators Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar, and Tom Steyer, a former hedge fund guy and early proponent of President Donald Trump’s impeachment.
These visits — and there have been others by others, including a recent one by Sen. Elizabeth Warren — are driven by considerations partisan and personal.
Virginia, among four states holding legislative elections, is the only one in which the majority could flip from Republican to Democratic. Claiming credit for that can be a crowing point in the presidential election, when Virginia’s Democratic reflex peaks because turnout peaks.
A candidate helped now can become a supporter later, though increasing numbers of elective and activist Virginia Democrats have already announced their preferences for 2020, when the party’s presidential win streak could reach four straight. Virginia was the only state in the South to back Hillary Clinton over Trump in 2016.
What a difference a decade — or three — makes.
Into the 1980s, a Democratic legislative candidate wouldn’t be caught dead with a presidential prospect, lest it be a chance for Republicans to play the guilt-by-association card. Because Virginia could still break center-right, Democrats relied on the votes of Republicans and Republican leaners — and they weren’t prepared to risk losing them.
This made Democratic politics in Virginia schizophrenic. Population growth, demographic change and suburbanization, however, mean that a party with multiple personalities now pretty much has one — and it’s center-left, though, arguably, it’s more left than center.
The upshot: local and regional politics are heavily national in thrust and tone, driven by tribal cues, also known as party affiliation.
So it’s no wonder Vice President Mike Pence will be visiting Virginia, too, in a trip organized by the national Republican organization that supplies cash and services for state-level candidates.
Notwithstanding hostility here for Trump, in general, there are still specific stretches of the state where there’s less downside to invoking the president’s name. That includes Pence’s destination: Virginia Beach, which Trump won — but so did Democrat Ralph Northam for governor in 2017. And the city is in a Trump-carried congressional district that went Democratic in 2018.
There’s always the chance Pence, as a surrogate for the president, does as Godwin did 38 years ago: rile the wrong voters.
Too bad Republicans don’t have their version of Alec Baldwin, the actor and Trump imitator who, this past Tuesday, stumped in a Trump-friendly patch of Chesterfield for a long-odds Democrat.
That gave Republicans an excuse do something they don’t do much these days: laugh.