Virginia Governor’s Race Is Good Test for Post-Trump Election Strategy

The front-runners for governor, Democrat Ralph Northam and Republican Ed Gillespie, each have serious primary challengers. Photo: Ralph Northam/Facebook; J. Lawler Duggan/Washington Post/Getty Images

Special elections for vacated House seats in (so far) five states will get a lot of attention, especially if they produce upsets or party switches, and New Jersey will gets its share of buzz for its own off-year statewide contests. But the place that will most likely be described, accurately or not, as offering a “referendum” on the Trump presidency will be the Commonwealth of Virginia, which will elect a governor and other state constitutional officers, along with the lower house of its legislature, this November. That is partly because Virginia remains a relatively competitive state where the recent statewide Democratic advantage is small (and offset in Richmond by GOP majorities in both legislative chambers). But it is the proximity of the Washington Beltway political-media complex that guarantees the Old Dominion maximum coverage and quite possibly overemphasis.

Virginia also has a rich tradition of offering good news to the party that has most recently lost a presidential election. Until Democrat Terry McAuliffe broke the streak with a narrow win over Republican Ken Cuccinelli in 2013, no candidate of the presidential party had won a Virginia gubernatorial race since the Nixon administration. Another Virginia distinction is that it is the last of what was once a robust list of states prohibiting governors from serving a second consecutive term. Since every governor’s race cannot be, by definition, a referendum on an incumbent running for reelection, it’s easier to blame or credit national trends for the results.

Adding to the buzz Virginia will earn is the fact that the governor’s race will feature what look to be highly competitive primaries for both parties. That’s a bit of a surprise. Until recently, the contest to succeed McAuliffe looked to be a preordained showdown between T-Mac’s lieutenant governor, Ralph Northam, and former national and state GOP chairman Ed Gillespie. Northam was very much the candidate of McAuliffe and the state Democratic establishment (he’s a veteran of the state senate), while Gillespie very nearly pulled off the upset of the cycle in 2014, coming within an eyelash of beating Senator Mark Warner.

After Donald Trump’s victory, Gillespie’s grip on the GOP nomination got a little slippery. Corey Stewart, chairman of the Board of Supervisors in exurban Prince William County and the new president’s one-time Virginia campaign manager, got into the race, immediately posturing as a hellfire Trump-style populist. (Stewart was actually fired by the Trump campaign during October of 2016 after embarrassing it by conducting a protest at the RNC for writing off Virginia. That hasn’t cooled his ardor for the Boss and his message, though.) Sensing an opening for a candidate from the Hampton Roads region, State Senator Frank Wagner of Virginia Beach also got into the race, followed by Charlottesville distillery-owner Denver Riggleman, another Trumpian populist and a political neophyte.

Virginia does not have a majority vote requirement for nominations, so Gillespie could well prevail with a plurality over divided opposition. The most recent poll, from Quinnipiac, taken in mid-February, unsurprisingly showed 59 percent undecided. Among the minority with a candidate preference, Gillespie led with 24 percent; Stewart had 7 percent, Wagner 5 percent, and Riggleman 2 percent.

On the Democratic side, Northam’s cakewalk to the gubernatorial nomination was interrupted by former one-term congressman and Obama administration foreign-policy official Tom Perriello of Charlottesville. Perriello, who won a largely rural House district in 2008 in a big upset, was once a classic economic populist/social conservative pol, who voted against coverage of abortions under Obamacare and won an NRA endorsement for his unsuccessful reelection bid. Now he’s very much the seamless-web progressive, and looks likely to be a magnet for Bernie Sanders supporters and others disgruntled with McAuliffe and other elements of the centrist state party. Northam has already sought to draw attention to Perriello’s past cultural heresies, but he’s got some orthodoxy problems, too, now that he’s admitted he voted twice for George W. Bush (albeit as an “apolitical physician” back in the day). So far Perriello seems inclined to make national anti-Trump themes central to his candidacy, while Northam is following the ancient Virginia tradition of focusing on state issues. In the white-hot atmosphere of early 2017, it’s hard to know which approach will work better in the June 13 primary. Perriello did corner one local issue by coming out against two controversial natural-gas pipeline projects that Northam (and McAuliffe) support. But in the meantime, the reproductive-rights group NARAL endorsed Northam.

Neither Northam nor Perriello is from the Democrat-rich regions of Northern Virginia or Richmond, so messaging, organization, and money are going to matter a lot. The mid-February Quinnipiac poll showed them tied at 19 percent, with 61 percent undecided.

Barring an upset win on the Republican side by Stewart or Riggleman, which would definitely make the general election a referendum on Trump, the ultimate contest should be a fairly standard-brand center-left Democrat versus conventionally conservative Republican match, with Trump’s relative popularity being a wild card no matter what. McAuliffe is reasonably but not overwhelmingly popular. Democrats have definitely built a consistent if occasionally marginal statewide coalition, winning the last four U.S. Senate races and carrying the state in three consecutive presidential elections (impressive since Democrats had lost the Commonwealth in every presidential election from 1968 through 2004). Feeding the Democratic trend has been demographics, with major population growth occurring in Northern Virginia with its many immigrants, federal employees, and contractors, and transplants from outside the South. As of the 2016 elections (according to the exit polls), 30 percent of the electorate were minorities, and 54 percent had college degrees. In terms of the kind of smaller, off-year electorate we can expect in November, it is significant that Clinton nearly matched Trump among white college graduates, those most likely to show up in non-presidential elections, while Trump won the more marginally participating white non-college graduates by a massive 71/24 margin. If this kind of education gap occurs in the Virginia governor’s race, particularly if white working-class voters stay home in significant numbers, a GOP win will be very difficult to produce.

The closely divided (21 Republicans, 19 Democrats) Virginia Senate will not face the voters this year. The much bigger, gerrymander-aided GOP House majority (a 66-34 advantage over Democrats) will be on the ballot. Democratic gains may depend on whether the Donkey Party can stop leaving so many Republican incumbents (44 of 67 in 2015) — unopposed.

All in all, Virginia is less of a probable blue paradise in 2017 than its off-year counterpart in New Jersey, where Chris Christie’s deep unpopularity is even more of a problem than Trump’s issues. But the odds are good for a Democratic sweep of the top offices in both states — especially if the president becomes a millstone rather than a hot-air balloon for his party.

Virginia Governor’s Race a Good Test for Post-Trump Strategy