Voters got a nail-biter of a primary night, just not the one they expected.
The Democratic primary between Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello was supposed to be a toss up, but Northam won with 56 percent of the vote to 44 percent for Perriello. This solid victory gives Democrats an edge going into the general election.
It was the Republican primary that was decided by a narrow margin. Former Republican National Committee chair and lobbyist Ed Gillespie was supposed to glide to an easy win against Prince William Board of Supervisors chair Corey Stewart and state Sen. Frank Wagner. Gillespie had every advantage – a flush war chest, a solid organization and better name recognition – yet won by just over 4,500 votes out of nearly 366,000 cast. He took 44 percent to 43 percent for Stewart and 14 percent for Wagner.
Stewart’s performance was fueled by his anti-immigration rhetoric and his support of the Confederate flag and monuments. His style is often compared to that of President Donald Trump’s; Stewart served as Trump’s state campaign chair. And like Trump, Stewart effectively tapped into voter anger.
That Stewart got 43 percent with limited resources amounted to alarm bells for Gillespie heading into the general election. Stewart has given Gillespie his tepid support, which has only served to raise questions about whether the party can be united or whether Stewart’s supporters will be engaged in the general election.
Primary turnout may have also provided some clues about the general election. There is no party registration in Virginia, leaving voters to choose the party primary in which they want to cast a ballot. The Democratic primary saw 277,000 more voters than the Republican primary, which suggests that there is more intensity among the Democratic base and that many independents were more attracted to the Democratic primary candidates. Democratic strategists were quick to point out that participation in their primary amounted to 70 percent of the turnout in the 2016 primary, while Republicans only hit 35 percent of their 2016 turnout.
Virginia lost its status as a red state several cycles ago, but Democrats have argued that is no longer a purple state either. Going back to 2004, Democrats have won nine of ten races for President, Governor and the U.S. Senate. If it is now more accurate to call Virginia blue, then that is one more hurdle for Republicans to clear in November.
Apart from the structural challenges that may exist for Republicans, Democrats contend that Gillespie is far from the perfect nominee.
Gillespie, 55, has spent his professional life in and around politics. He spent a decade working for then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey, did a couple of tours at the Republican National Committee, including a term as chairman, served as counselor to President George W. Bush, and founded one of Washington’s most successful lobbying and public affairs firms. In 2014, he ran against Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, coming close to scoring the upset of the cycle; he fell just under 18,000 votes short.
Democrats say that Gillespie’s long career as a Beltway insider, particularly his roster of lobbying clients, provides plenty of fodder to portray him as the kind of insider politician that voters have grown weary of.
Finally, Democrats say that President Trump will prove to be dead weight for Gillespie, noting that his job approval rating in the state is under 40 percent. Republicans counter that their nominee is hardly a Trump acolyte. Gillespie is firmly planted in the establishment wing of the party, and never fully embraced Trump during the campaign or since. All that is true, but it won’t get in Democrats’ way as they work to tie Gillespie to Trump at every opportunity.
In fact, this race may provide Republicans with a good sense of how damaging Trump might be to their candidates in Senate, House and gubernatorial contests in 2018. Gillespie has no real ties to Trump, and since he doesn’t hold office, he hasn’t had to cast votes on any of the President’s legislative priorities. And, Gillespie is a talented strategist. At the end of the day, if Gillespie can’t escape being tagged with Trump, it is not a good sign for the party heading into 2018.
Republicans counter Democrats’ arguments, saying that Northam was pushed too far to the left in the primary and has taken extreme positions (or waffled) on some issues that voters care about like gun control and construction of a gas pipeline. They note that Northam was forced to spend down his war chest, leaving Gillespie with a healthy financial advantage heading into the general. They also contend that Virginia remains a purple state where Republicans are still competitive, pointing out that they hold seven of the state’s 11 U.S. House seats and have majorities in both chambers of the state legislature though their majority in the state Senate is just two seats.
Finally, Republicans released a poll conducted just before the primary that showed the race statistically tied. The Public Opinion Strategies survey (June 6-8 of 600 likely voters) had Gillespie at 46 percent to 45 percent for Northam. This poll is at odds with public polling released before the primary that showed Northam ahead.
The Northam v. Perriello primary became a contest between the Democratic establishment and progressives (the Sanders/Warren wing). At least that’s how progressives and many in the media portrayed it. There has been much speculation about what Northam’s solid victory means for progressives. The answer is nothing. Yes, Perriello was the more progressive candidate, but his loss had much more to do with campaign fundamentals than it did with ideology.
Northam, 57 and a pediatric neurosurgeon who served in the state Senate before being elected Lieutenant Governor, essentially announced his candidacy early in 2015 and spent the next two years raising money, putting together an organization and securing just about every meaningful endorsement, including outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe and U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner. By contrast, Perriello announced his candidacy in January of this year and started from scratch in terms of fundraising and organization. By the time he got in, the path to the nomination had become extremely narrow. There is little doubt that Perriello wanted to focus on progressive issues, but he drew few real contrasts with Northam. More important, one Democratic strategist noted that one of Perriello’s challenges was that rank and file Democratic are pretty content with the status quo. They are happy with the job McAuliffe has done as Governor and the overall direction of the state. In other words, they weren’t in the market for an upstart candidate.
Northam exits the primary with a unified party and momentum. While his war chest is not as full as he had hoped, there is little doubt that he will have ample resources.
Whether one thinks that Virginia is purple or blue, it remains competitive. Given the circumstances surrounding the GOP primary and the overall political landscape that appears to tilt a bit toward Democrats, Northam starts the general election with an edge. The race is in the Lean Democratic column. This does not mean that it can’t become more competitive and move to Toss Up, but the onus is on Gillespie and Republicans to make that happen.