Richmond — Virginia’s gubernatorial election stands as a test for the anti-Donald Trump resistance and whether it can energise voters and donors for the less glamorous races featuring traditional Democratic politicians.
The November 7 contest pits Democratic Lt Governor Ralph Northam, a physician, Army veteran and former state senator, against Ed Gillespie, onetime aide to President George W Bush and former head of the Republican Party. The current governor, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, is term-limited.
The stakes in Virginia are immense: Though Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won the state by five percentage points in 2016, Republicans typically are more likely to turn out in off-year statewide elections. Northam has led in most polls, but the race is close.
A loss would be devastating after Democrats failed to capture any GOP-held seats in contested special congressional elections earlier this year that galvanised anti-Trump activists.
The next Virginia governor also will have a major say in the state’s next congressional redistricting. A Republican wave in statehouse elections around the country in 2010 — just prior to the last redistricting —has helped the GOP maintain a firm grip on the House.
Former President Barack Obama highlighted the importance of the Virginia race last week at his first large political rally since leaving office, urging Democrats not to get “a little sleepy” in the off-year election.
“I think that it’s great that you hashtag and meme,” the former president told a crowd in Richmond, “but I need you to vote”.
Northam bested former Rep Tom Perriello, a populist favourite of the resistance who was backed by Senator Bernie Sanders, in the Democratic primary.
Sanders’ political operation, Our Revolution, recently endorsed six Democrats running for the state House of Delegates, but did not endorse Northam.
Diane May, a spokesperson for the group, said it can only endorse candidates recommended by local members and none in Virginia recommended Northam.
Some activists say it’s obvious that the liberal wing of the party isn’t as engaged in the governor’s race.
“We absolutely want to see them win, but that’s the difference between inspiring and driving a Democratic base to get out there for you and someone who you just want to win,” said Charles Chamberlain, executive director of the group Democracy For America. “If he doesn’t win, this will be why”.
Meanwhile, a rally staged by a coalition of neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups in Tennessee on Saturday met counterprotests and a large police presence.
The Nationalist Front, the coalition, held Saturday’s protest, which included the participation of the neo-fascist Traditionalist Worker Party (TWP), the National Socialist Movement (NSM), the neo-Confederate League of the South and other white supremacist groups.
At the rally in Shelbyville, the white supremacist demonstrators chanted “Jews will not replace us”, a slogan that has become commonplace at far-right events in the US.
A second rally slated to be held in nearby Murfreesboro was reportedly cancelled by organisers. In a Twitter post, the League of the South’s Hunter Wallace said the event was called off because he had “intel” that it was a “lawsuit trap”.
In response, hundreds of anti-fascists (Antifa) and other counterdemonstrators from across the state and elsewhere in the US converged on the Tennessee towns.
Local media reports said that shop owners boarded up their businesses before the “White Lives Matter” rally, while Tennessee Middle State University in Murfreesboro cancelled a student band competition and placed two student housing facilities on lockdown.
The Nationalist Front and its allies chose the central Tennessee towns to protest refugee resettlement, the opioid crisis gripping the country and a mass shooting allegedly carried out by a Sudanese man at a church in that state last month.
“This isn’t the first time that extreme outside groups have seen Tennessee’s growing multiculturalism as an opportunity to sow fear and build support for their far-right movements by scapegoating refugees,” Stephanie Teatro, co-executive director of Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, told Al Jazeera by email.
“We are deeply disturbed by how emboldened white supremacists have become in recent months, demonstrating with greater visibility and frequency, but also how their extreme visions of Americans have been mainstreamed into state and federal policies,” Teatro said. “Long after these outsiders leave, we’ll continue to build more connected communities that are resilient to these far-right groups.”
On August 12, hundreds of neo-Nazis and white supremacists travelled from across the country to Charlottesville to protest the city’s decision to tear down a Confederate monument. Participants clashed with community members, anti-racist activists and anti-fascists throughout the city.
By the end of the day, James Alex Fields, a 20-year-old Ohio resident, had allegedly rammed his car into an anti-racist march and killed 32-year-old activist Heather Heyer. The incident also left at least 19 people injured. “The media is claiming we started or brought violence to Charlottesville and anyone, with even half of a brain who was actually there knows the truth the Antifa violently attacked anyone who was deemed pro-white or pro-American even,” Schoep, who refers to himself as the NSM’s commander, said by email.
He went on to allege that anti-fascists “viciously attacked us with mace, bricks, bottles, bats, chemicals, and countless urine-filled balloons and bottles” in Charlottesville.
The “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville and the killing of Heyer prompted a widespread public backlash against the alt-right, a loosely-knit coalition of white supremacists, white nationalists and neo-Nazis who advocate a white ethnostate.
Among those who shared Schoep’s narrative of the events in Charlottesville was right-wing US President Donald Trump, who claimed deemed anti-fascists and other counterprotesters as the “alt-left”.
Attributing blame to “both sides”, Trump said at the time that counterdemonstrators were “swinging clubs” as they “came charging at” the far-right groups.
Trump’s comments met widespread criticism from many on both sides of the political spectrum. — Al Jazeera