While Democrats are currently down and out their comeback story could start to be written this year. A series of off-year elections culminating with the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial contests may offer us our first cues about how the electorate is feeling heading into Trump’s first midterm. Of the two contests New Jersey’s contest seems to be the more conventional. Democrats are favored to take back Chris Christie’s current post while the Virginia contest seems wide open. It is Virginia I want to focus on here today.
Virginia’s gubernatorial contests are always a little weird. There is never an incumbent because Virginia is the only state in the nation that limits its Governors to a single, four year term. Additionally, it is really the only purple state in an off-year election. It being next to DC does not hurt either. Due to Republicans being the out party it was expected they would have the contested primary and it continues to look that way. The race appears to be boiling down to two contenders, Trump’s Virginia campaign chairman Corey Stuart and GOP strategist and 2014 Senate nominee Ed Gillespie. A recent survey found Gillespie led Stuart 19 percent to 6 percent with many undecided.
It is not difficult to guess where both candidate’s support will primarily come from. Gillespie has support in the state party apparatus and will probably run strongest in the affluent, GOP heavy precincts of suburban DC. Stuart should find strong support among the more rural supporters of the party.
Until very recently Democrats were giddy about the divide within the GOP. But now, they have their own primary to deal with. It was always expected Lt. Governor Ralph Northam would run to replace Terry McAuliffe. Northam and MCAuliffe agree on many issues and he has the support of the Governor.
But progressives who have chafed at the centrist nature of the state party, even as they have won every statewide contest since 2008 (except for the 2009 gubernatorial contest), have found their own candidate in former Congressman Tom Perriello. A little background on Perriello is in order. Elected in the Obama wave of 2008, the Congressman supported much of the President’s agenda even in a right leaning district. After losing in 2010, the former Congressman found work as an executive for the Center for American Progress and has served in the Obama administration’s State Department. Progressives feel like they have found their champion.
Democrats now face a dilemma. Much as the GOP contest is a reflection of the “establishment” vs. the “outsider” Democrats face the same thing. Perreillo was a vocal supporter of Bernie Sanders while Northam followed the safer path and backed Hillary Clinton.
Gauging which candidate comes out of the primary is tougher than the GOP contest. The divide within the Democratic party is not so much geographic or racial as it is age based. Perreillo can expect to do well in the younger DC suburbs but Northam can play well there among its many socially liberal, fiscally centrist Independents.
The GOP was saddled with a disastrous candidate in 2013 due to its use of a State Party Convention full of party ideologues to nominate its candidate. This go-round the conventional wisdom of the party switching back to a statewide primary should benefit Gillespie. Then again, maybe not.
If we use the 2016 GOP Presidential primary results as a proxy for primary voting this year than Gillespie should find great success in Loundon and Prince William Counties. But Gardner could actually do better there than initially expected and actually win Virginia Beach (as Trump did). As mentioned above it is more difficult to map the contours of the Democratic Primary. One should expect Perriello to do well in the cities and inner suburbs while Northam will probably play better among more centrist black and Asian voters.
The real magic will be in the general election. A lot will depend on the national political environment but generally Democrats have an advantage in the state if they can get their base out to vote. But, even if they don’t past results bode well for the party.
In 2013, Democrats managed to win all four NoVA counties despite horrid turnout. In 2014, the party even overcame losing Loudoun county by overperforming in downstate black precincts.
This puts the state GOP in a bind. That said, Gillespie does have the ability to appeal to both downstate and NoVA voters. He is moderate enough to appeal to the suburbs chock full of affluent Republicans but have enough of a history to play to socially conservative, more rural voters downstate.
Obviously, as the race gets closer well will know more and be able to provide a more thorough, in-depth analysis. For now though, we certainly can look forward to the marquee contest of this year!