Virginia’s Much-Watched Democratic Gubernatorial Primary Is Too Close to Call

The Perriello-Northam contest could go either way, while Ed Gillespie seems to have the GOP primary under control. Photo: Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tomorrow’s Democratic gubernatorial primary in Virginia has gotten a lot more national attention than the New Jersey contests last week. Whatever national fuss it has enjoyed is in no small part because casually interested national media have frequently treated the battle between Tom Perriello and Ralph Northam as a rematch of last year’s Bernie Sanders–Hillary Clinton rivalry.

The only problem with that perspective is that it’s actually not accurate. Yes, Perriello — a former congressman and Obama administration official — has been endorsed by Sanders and by Elizabeth Warren, but he’s also being backed by a host of former Clinton and Obama operatives. Meanwhile, Northam, the current lieutenant governor, is being supported by every elected Democrat in the executive or legislative branches of government in the Old Dominion. So it’s really more of a “national versus state perspective” contest, reflected in the two candidates’ messaging: Perriello is touting his campaign as an important sign of anti-Trump sentiment, while Northam (as one might expect of a lieutenant governor) is talking more about continuing Terry McAuliffe’s legacy and dealing with a Republican-controlled legislature.

The GOP primary is thought by most observers to be a less competitive affair, with former RNC chairman Ed Gillespie — who became a national GOP rock star in 2014 by very nearly upsetting Senator Mark Warner — dominating fundraising and endorsements against fiery Trumpite county supervisor chairman Corey Stewart and Hampton Roads legislator Frank Wagner. There is a late online survey from a new polling firm showing Stewart running even with — and in some turnout scenarios ahead of — Gillespie, which Breitbart News is touting. Stewart’s campaign has mostly been composed of attacks on undocumented workers, defense of Confederate monuments, and oaths of fealty to the president. No other poll has shown him holding more than 18 percent of the primary vote. On the other hand, as Virginia-based analyst Geoffrey Skelley points out, this is only the fourth Republican gubernatorial primary ever (the GOP in this state usually opts for a nominating convention). And this is the state where Eric Cantor managed to lose to Dave Brat. A Stewart win would be equally shocking.

The Democratic vote is dicier. Most recent polls have shown a close race, with Perriello doing well in and near the Charlottesville-Southside congressional district he represented in the U.S. House for one term (2009–2010), and Northam doing well in the Tidewater area he represented in the Virginia legislature. That makes Richmond and especially vote-rich northern Virginia the real arenas. You would normally expect the nationally focused Perriello to have an advantage in the nationally focused D.C. suburbs. But Northam has outspent his opponent in TV advertising, and was also endorsed by the Washington Post.

The African-American vote — expected to be about a third of Democratic primary voters — could also help decide the contest. Northam has a lot of African-American elected official endorsements — that of veteran congressman Bobby Scott could be especially influential. But Perriello’s identification with Barack Obama — which he highlights in his own ads — could also help him among black voters.

In the end, turnout patterns could matter most. A very low turnout helps Northam, whose supporters are significantly older than Perriello’s. “Very low” in Virginia off-year elections really does mean very low: In the last wide-open Democratic gubernatorial primary, in 2009, only 6.3 percent of registered voters participated (Virginia does not have voter registration by party). Turnout closer to 10 percent would probably be good news for Perriello.

Democrats will likely end primary day in good shape for November. The Northam-Perriello primary has been quite civil, and history is definitely on their side: In 2013, Terry McAuliffe broke a streak of nine consecutive gubernatorial winners from the party that did not control the White House. Given Trump’s less-than-average popularity in Virginia and nationally, this seems an unlikely year for the White House albatross to become a advantage.

Tomorrow’s Virginia Democratic Primary Too Close to Call