On Tuesday, voters in Virginia will select the Republican and Democratic Party candidates for the governor election in November. The primary election in each party seems to echo the insurgent versus establishment narrative so powerful in 2016.
Here are five things to know about the elections.
1. The Republicans.
Ed Gillespie, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, is the Republican favorite. He ran for U.S. Senate in 2014, narrowly losing to incumbent Senator Mark Warner. But the margin by which Gillespie lost — 0.8 percent — was tiny compared to the tremendous defeat the polls predicted. Gillespie’s concession speech was remarkably happy, and Republicans learned that he was a strong political contender against Democrats.
Gillespie enjoys broad endorsements from the vast majority of Virginia’s state delegates but also from national figures like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley. Even former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a close ally of Donald Trump, has endorsed him.
Gillespie’s main challenger is Corey Stewart, chairman of a board of county supervisors, a former candidate for lieutenant governor, and Donald Trump’s campaign chairman in Virginia last year. He is widely considered the anti-establishment Trump-style candidate, and he lacks the kind of endorsements that have surrounded Gillespie.
State Senator Frank Wagner is the only sitting office-holder running in the Republican primary. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and a Navy veteran, Wagner emphasized the area of Hampton Roads, claiming that he alone could win the state-wide race in November.
The Republican primary also has a black candidate, Bishop Emmanuel Peter, who is running to prioritize safety and family values. Peter claims not only to support the Second Amendment, but also to back “commonsense gun laws (background check).”
2. Who will win?
Most of the polls have placed Gillespie in first, with Stewart in a distant second. A Quinnipiac poll in April found Gillespie at 28 percent, with Stewart at 12 percent and Wagner lagging at 7 percent. A Washington Post— GMU Schar School poll in late May found 38 percent for Gillespie and 18 percent for Stewart, with Wagner at 15 percent.
But a shocking new poll from Change Research put Stewart ahead of Gillespie. The poll, released Monday, found Stewart with 42 percent to Gillespie’s 41 percent. The Stewart campaign attributed its lead to higher enthusiasm, since 58 percent of voters who preferred Stewart said they will definitely vote for him, whereas only 38 percent of voters who preferred Gillespie said so for their candidate.
The Trump agenda also seemed to drive this change. A full 34 percent of voters who cite illegal immigration as their greatest concern said they would vote for Stewart, while only 17 percent of them said they would vote Gillespie.
While Gillespie remains the favorite, Stewart could very well pull an upset. Most commentators are focusing on the Democratic race, writing off Stewart’s chances, but the Trump-style candidate could very well eke out a win.
3. The Democrats.
While the Republican primary echoes Trump’s anti-establishment campaign to some extent, the Democratic primary seems an eery echo of 2016.
Ralph Northam, Virginia’s sitting lieutenant governor, is a doctor, U.S. Army veteran, and former state senator.
He enjoys vast support from local and most national Democratic officials. Almost every Democrat in the state’s assembly has endorsed him, as have Governor Terry McAuliffe, the state’s Democrat congressmen, and even Senator Tim Kaine, who was Hillary Clinton’s running mate last year. Even The Washington Post gave Northam its endorsement.
Tom Perriello, a former Virginia congressman, has worked in Africa and was an avid supporter of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). He also worked for the Center for American Progress, a liberal nonprofit.
Perriello has attracted support from the ultra-liberal wing of the Democratic Party. Both Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have endorsed him, as have Khizr and Ghazala Khan (remember them?), former Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, and Obama alums Valerie Jarrett, David Plouffe, and Jennifer Palmieri.
4. Chances of a Sanders upset?
Perriello has been polling strongly against Northam, despite the lieutenant governor’s strong statewide connections. The two latest polls put the Sanders-style candidate ahead by a small margin.
On Monday, CSP Polling found 46 percent of voters supporting Perriello compared to Northam’s 41 percent, with 13 percent undecided. The same day, Change Research also put the Sanders candidate ahead, with 55 percent to Northam’s 42 percent.
Perriello has polled more competitively in general election match-ups against Gillespie and Stewart, but the general election is still too far away for these polls to be truly predictive.
Interestingly, Northam entered the race in February of 2015 in order to raise money for a tight and difficult general election, but Perriello’s entrance into the race forced the lieutenant governor to deplete his stockpile of cash, making him a weaker candidate in the general should he prevail in the primary.
5. The nationalization of Virginia politics.
As Politico‘s Gabriel DeBenedetti reported, Virginia’s politics is becoming increasingly national. If Gillespie wins the Republican nomination and the governor’s mansion, he will be the fourth governor since 2001 to have served as a national party chairman. (Sitting Governor Terry McAuliffe was a Democratic National Committee chairman, as was Tim Kaine before him.)
Former Governor Jim Gilmore, who himself once served as the RNC chairman, predicted that Gillespie would be “acceptable to the Trump base, because the Trump base is not focused on the issue of Gillespie verses Corey Stewart.” Rather, “the Trump base is more focused on Democrats’ behavior nationwide.”
Even a Stewart win could arguably show the nationalization of Virginia politics, however. His identification with Trump and the anti-establishment fervor represents a local application of the nation trends that got the president elected.
On the Democratic side, Perriello represents the nationalization of Virginia politics. Both Northam and Perriello have harshly criticized Trump and focused on many local issues, but the media has presented Perriello as the candidate of the anti-Trump “resistance,” and that matches his support from Sanders and Warren.
Virginia is one of only two states to elect governors this year, along with New Jersey. Both elections will be analyzed as predicting the 2018 midterm elections.