The Ripon Forum

Volume 51, No. 3

June 2017

The Virginia Bellwether

By on June 25, 2017


Virginia is for lovers, or so the signs say when you enter the Commonwealth.  Those involved in the political side of things in Virginia like to rephrase this slightly to “Virginia is for lovers…of elections.” Why? Because we have them every single year.

Unlike most states, Virginia has adopted an odd-numbered year election cycle for state and local offices.  As a result, the inaugural year for any new Presidency is also a gubernatorial election year in the Old Dominion.  2017 will be treated by observers as a bellwether for President Trump’s agenda and foreshadowing for next year’s mid-term Congressional elections.

On June 13, Virginians went to the polls to choose the nominees for their respective parties’ statewide candidates – Governor, Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General.  The election was one of the most bitter and caustic in recent memory, and the outcome, while unsurprising, did not conform to most pundit’s expectations.

On the Republican side, former Bush administration official and 2014 Senate nominee Ed Gillespie triumphed in a squeaker of a three-way race against former Trump Virginia Co-Chair Corey Stewart and State Senator Frank Wagner.  On the Democratic side, sitting Lt. Governor Ralph Northam overcame an insurgent campaign from former one-term Congressman Tom Perriello.  Most pundits expected these outcomes, but the closeness of the race on the Republican side and the blowout on the Democratic side were surprising.  Pundits throughout Virginia predicted the exact opposite – blowouts for the GOP and a neck and neck race for the Democrats.

The Democratic turnout of 542,632 in the June 13th primary dwarfed the GOP turnout by almost 200,000 votes.

When all was told, Gillespie garnered 160,255 votes (43.76%) to Corey Stewart’s 155,646 (42.50%) and Frank Wagner’s 50,347 (13.75%). The 366,248 votes cast in the primary represent a significant drop-off from the over 1 million votes cast by Republicans in the 2016 presidential primary.  With no party registration in Virginia, using the total number of votes in the presidential primary as the total Republican electorate in Virginia, the 2017 primary saw 36% GOP turnout.

On the Democratic side, Ralph Northam collected 303,407 votes (55.91%) to Tom Perriello’s 239,225 (44.09%).  The Democratic turnout of 542,632 dwarfed the GOP turnout by almost 200,000 votes.  Using the 2016 Democratic primary turnout number, 785,041, Democrats managed to turn out a whopping 69% of their base in this contest.

Both the GOP and Democratic primaries were viewed as proxy wars for the various wings of both parties.  Gillespie stood for the GOP establishment, Stewart, the anti-establishment Trump voters. Northam had the backing of the Clinton machine, including sitting Governor Terry McAuliffe, while Perriello was a vocal Sanders supporter.

Gillespie focused on traditionally safe Republican issues, primarily on jobs and the economy, and largely didn’t engage Stewart.  Stewart ran an aggressive anti-establishment campaign, fed his supporters a daily mash of toxic stew about Gillespie, and got national attention for his defense of Confederate monuments.  Perriello and Northam engaged in a contest to see who could be the most faithful to far-left progressivism.  This forced Northam, a more moderate Democrat who supported Bush in 2000 and 2004 and flirted with switching parties in 2009, to take positions that will be uncomfortable in the general election.

The wild card, as always, is the national political environment. The President’s unpopularity is likely to lead Northam to run an anti-Trump campaign. If Northam convinces Trump supporters that the 2017 race is a referendum on Trump, that could be the only thing that gets them to the polls for Gillespie this November.  At the same time, Gillespie cannot afford to embrace Trump too closely, or else he risks alienating the large numbers of traditional GOP voters and moderate independents in urban and suburban areas who did not support Trump in 2016, which led to Hillary Clinton’s 200,000 vote victory in Virginia.

Given Virginia’s performance statewide over the last eight years, the edge likely goes slightly towards Northam, but this race is wide open right now.

The GOP will have an uphill battle to victory in November.  While Gillespie enters the general election campaign with over $2 million cash-on-hand and over 85% name ID, he is unlikely to get Stewart’s enthusiastic support, which means the GOP in Virginia will remain fractured. Northam enters with half the cash and a name ID closer to 65%, but Perriello has already endorsed Northam and urged his supporters to unify for victory.  Northam also has the McAuliffe (and thus, the Clinton) fundraising machine behind him and is a sitting incumbent.

Given Virginia’s performance statewide over the last eight years, the edge likely goes slightly towards Northam, but this race is wide open right now.  The GOP, if it can overcome its internal differences, has a chance to win back control of the Governor’s mansion.  The Democrats, on the other hand, will get a chance to test run all their anti-Trump arguments leading up to the 2018 mid-term elections.

It’s anybody’s ball game at this point, and that’s why election lovers from across the country will have their eyes on Virginia this November.

Brian W. Schoeneman is Editor-in-Chief of and General Counsel for Virginia Line Media, LLC.

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