By Adam Kimelman
After spending more than $50 million on a special election that would decide the result of Georgia’s 6th Congressional District’s special election, it is clear that symbolic victories are incredibly valuable to both the Democratic and Republican parties. But if the two major parties are willing to spend such an exorbitant amount on a single U.S. House race, what are they willing to contribute to a gubernatorial campaign that will decide redistricting in Virginia for the next decade, and that will likely be the only competitive race come November of 2017? Both Ed Gillespie and Ralph Northam represent the establishment sects of their parties in a political climate where representing the establishment can be politically suicidal, and both successfully fended off challenges from more populist opponents during the June 13th primary. The results of this primary set up a high-stakes general election in November that will test each candidate’s ability to handle their base in the Trump-era, while simultaneously attempting to court crucial independent voters. These two traditional candidates could be in for the most expensive and closely watched governor’s race — not just in Virginia’s history — but in the nation’s.
For Ralph Northam, the night of June 13th has to be viewed as a success. After several polls showed his opponent, former congressman Tom Perriello, either within striking distance or ahead, Northam was able to deliver a resounding victory in the Democratic Primary, winning by 12 points. Even with Perriello’s more progressive views, and endorsements from Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, Northam dominated the “urban crescent” area, sweeping the Hampton Roads, Richmond, and Northern Virginia strongholds. Perriello did better in the Western and Southern parts of the state, but couldn’t come close to Northam’s dominance in urban areas.
The Republican Party had significantly lower turnout, with 59.7% of those voting choosing to do so on the Democratic side. While the Democratic primary likely attracted more voters do to its close appearance in poll numbers, the Republican primary likely suffered in turnout for the opposite reason. Polling leading up to the primary had Gillespie routinely up by double digits, and experts and pundits predicting a landslide for the former RNC chair and advisor to President George W. Bush (who the Democratic nominee he will now face had twice voted for, interestingly). On election day, however, Gillespie barely edged out a victory over Corey Stewart, who made a name for himself by audaciously supporting President Trump and standing up for Confederate monuments. While Stewart dominated in Western, Southern, and parts of Central Virginia, Gillespie was able to hold onto a lead all night from voters in Hampton Roads, Northern Virginia, and the Richmond area.
This race was made much closer than expected by a number of factors, including low-turnout, Frank Wagner’s continued campaign, the passion of many Stewart voters, and misinformation involving Gillespie’s positions. Low-turnout elections are often difficult to gauge precisely, since it is hard to predict who will comprise the small group of voters who head to the polls. This, combined with the fact that Stewart’s voters were more idealistic and radical, and therefore more likely to vote, likely tightened the race. Many potential Gillespie voters, who tend to be overall more moderate in belief, would be less likely to vote in a Republican primary, and more likely to cast a vote in the Democratic primary, which seemed to be a closer race. A number of Gillespie’s supporters likely assumed he had the election won, and decided to stay home. On top of this, Frank Wagner, also a moderate Republican, could be seen doing better than usual in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia, where Gillespie needed to run up the score against Stewart. He most likely put pressure on Gillespie from the middle, further cutting into his lead.
Another reason for the sudden disappearance of Gillespie’s seemingly strong lead was Corey Stewart’s noxious campaign rhetoric. During his campaign, Corey Stewart made several false claims about Gillespie’s positions, including that he supported late-term abortion (he does not) and that he supported removing historical monuments (also false). For those who believe in fact-checking, we can label these as alternative facts, fake news, or just straight-up lies. Whatever you call them, these issues are ones that resonated highly with Republican primary voters, and the misinformation almost cost Gillespie the nomination.
Despite all of this, Ed Gillespie is still the Republican nominee, setting the stage for a high-profile governor’s race.
Many have assumed that Gillespie will come out of the primary weaker than Northam, who would have a slight advantage in the general election come November, but a closer look at some important factors shows that it may be quite the contest. A Gillespie internal poll had the GOP nominee up a single point against Northam, with a twelve-point lead among independents. Furthermore, this internal data showed that Gillespie had significantly greater name recognition (85%) than Northam (64%). This shows that Gillespie’s 2014 Senate run and near-upset of Senator Mark Warner has helped him gain name recognition, and may make it difficult for Democrats to define him as “Trump’s lackey” (as Northam attempts to do in his initial salvo), since most voters already know him.
While internal polls can often be skewed one way or another, Gillespie’s in this case is lent some credibility from an almost identical poll from Harper Polling, which finds the race tied at 46-46. This poll suggests that Gillespie has been able to consolidate more of his party’s support than Northam, with 89% of Republicans planning to support Gillespie, compared to 86% of Democrats and Northam. Corey Stewart is also considering a challenge to Senator Tim Kaine in 2018, and may begin easing his tone with regard to Gillespie in order to secure more support from the party. This would suggest that Gillespie may have an easier time consolidating Republican support then some pundits are suggesting, and that the Commonwealth of Virginia could be in for a very close race.
It also remains to be seen how outside forces may attempt to influence those inside Virginia. After going 0-4 in recent special elections, the DNC will be hungry for a win, and will without a doubt attempt to hold the governor’s mansion in Richmond as a symbolic gesture for progress in the fight against President Trump. At the same time, the RNC will more than jump at the chance to aid their former chairman in Ed Gillespie. Gillespie enters the race with about twice the amount of cash on hand as Northam, but if outside spending is anything like it was in Georgia’s 6th District special election, we could be looking at the most expensive gubernatorial race ever. Gillespie has a financial advantage at the moment, but that could easily be erased if Democratic mega-donors choose to get involved.
Furthermore, many pundits have said that President Trump’s unpopularity in the Commonwealth could hurt Gillespie’s bid for Governor. While Northam has already attempted to connect Gillespie to Trump, Democrats may find that this is not as effective as they might have hoped. In 2016, Democratic Candidate Hillary Clinton and Green Party Candidate Jill Stein were only able to gather a 28,000 vote advantage over the support for Donald Trump, Libertarian Gary Johnson, and the Conservative-Independent Evan McMullin. As a student who currently attends the University of Virginia, I already know of many who voted for McMullin, Johnson, and even Clinton, who are now supporting and volunteering for Ed Gillespie. Furthermore, this was with Virginia Senator Tim Kaine as Secretary Clinton’s running mate, and with the “Trump Effect” at full force (with then-candidate Trump’s name being physically on the ballot). Ed Gillespie has a much better shot than Donald Trump ever could have dreamed of having at winning Virginia.
With all of these factors, it would be naive to think that Northam has any substantial advantage against Gillespie in this race. The last time Gillespie ran against an establishment Democrat, he was very nearly able to pull off an upset against incumbent Senator Mark Warner after consistently trailing in the polls, and being outspent three-to-one. With a level playing field and polls showing a dead heat, only one certainty remains: this race could not be closer, and the political world will have its eyes on and pocketbooks directed towards the Commonwealth of Virginia for the next five months, accordingly.