Is Virginia in the process of rapidly turning blue, perhaps for good? If the state’s impending gubernatorial election is any indication, the answer is likely “no.” The race — and what it means for both the state’s future and the national arena — is nowhere near as clear-cut as politicos would have us believe.
The election, pitting longtime GOP leader Ed Gillespie against Virginia’s current lieutenant governor, Democrat Ralph Northam, is receiving considerable national attention, and understandably so. Virginia is one of just two states — the other being New Jersey — that hold their gubernatorial elections the year after a presidential contest, often leading national media and political parties to view the results as a bellwether.
Undoubtedly, the outcome will help to clarify how Virginia is trending in the age of Donald Trump, no little feat. But it’s less obvious that the race will portend anything useful about next year’s congressional elections and beyond, as some would like to suggest.
Virginia’s electoral history provides some essential context for understanding how much we can feasibly predict about national politics based on its ballots. For one thing, Virginia hasn’t been a true swing state for very long. Until Barack Obama, the Commonwealth was reliably Republican — from 1952 to 2004, only one Democratic presidential candidate won the state: Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
In 2008, when Obama took the state for the Democrats for the first time in over 40 years, he triumphed by a smaller margin than did George W. Bush in both 2000 and 2004. Then, Obama’s margin of victory shrunk substantially when he won Virginia again in 2012. And while Hillary Clinton won Virginia last November, beating Trump by a solid margin of 5.4 percent, the tension over Trump within the Republican party likely bears a large share of the blame for the GOP’s loss.
Rural Virginia voters supported Trump passionately, but in the more populous areas — particularly the urban centers of Richmond and Charlottesville, along with Northern Virginia’s crucial swing counties of Loudoun, Fairfax, and Prince William — Marco Rubio was by far the most popular Republican candidate. In fact, Rubio almost snagged the state’s primary from under Trump’s nose, coming up with 32 percent of the vote to Trump’s 34.8. In the general election, the counties that went for Rubio in March uniformly voted for Clinton.
Judging from these figures, it’s far from clear that Virginia has become a reliably Democratic state, and this year’s gubernatorial race has done little to suggest otherwise. The strange course of Virginia’s two primary races this summer indicates that several Virginia-specific factors might hamper the election’s viability as a model for national politics.
In some ways, the Democratic primary was a race to the left, as state-party favorite Northam fought to shake off a surprisingly substantial threat from former U.S. congressman Tom Periello, who notably earned the endorsement of Bernie Sanders. But even so, Northam continually hit Periello for being too far to the left for Virginia, brandishing his own credentials as a politician who has successfully worked with the state’s Republican legislature.
“Virginia is a fiscally responsible state,” Northam said in one primary debate, knocking Periello for his far-fetched budget proposal. “My plan costs about $37 million. [Periello’s] plan costs close to half a billion dollars. That’s not possible here.”
Northam ended up winning the Democratic primary by a comfortable eleven-point margin, despite several polls indicating that it’d be a tight race and some late surveys putting Periello ahead by several points. Virginia Democrats, regardless of which candidate they supported, rejoiced in their party’s astonishing turnout: nearly 550,000 voters, up 170 percent from 2009, their last contested primary.
Meanwhile, Republicans fell far behind in turnout; only 366,000 voters showed up at the polls. And while the Democratic race ended up being a runaway for Northam, the GOP primary turned out to be a nail-biter. Despite Gillespie’s consistently polling double digits ahead of local GOP politician Corey Stewart, Gillespie won by a measly 1.2 percent, just 5,000 votes.
To be fair, the GOP contest was complicated by the presence of a third candidate, state senator Frank Wagner, but Stewart’s remarkable run deserves closer inspection, if only because it bears more than a slight resemblance to Trump’s come-from-behind Electoral College victory against Clinton, which he pulled off despite the national media being hoodwinked by late polls suggesting that it couldn’t be done.
It’s easy to believe that the same underrepresentation of voters was at play in polls of the Virginia GOP primary, making it appear as if Stewart had far fewer supporters than he did in reality. Another possibility is that many Virginia voters who would have voted for Gillespie stayed home, convinced their votes weren’t needed because polls predicted a wipeout victory.
It’s worth noting, too, that neither Stewart nor Gillespie made “Trumpism” a fixture of his campaign rhetoric or policy agenda, but Stewart most closely mirrored the president with his far-right-wing, anti-establishment rhetoric and hard-line stance on illegal immigration. Now that Northam and Gillespie have bested their primary competitors, however, the dynamic of the race has changed, and perhaps not in the way national observers might expect.
To progressives, this race is the biggest chance since last November for the anti-Trump ‘resistance’ to push back against the GOP with an increasingly left-wing message.
While Gillespie continues to lean about as far to the right as he did during the primary — defending, for example, Confederate monuments on the grounds that Virginians would rather invest money in local schools than spend it taking down statues — Northam appears to be playing even closer to the center than he did against Periello.
The reason for his strategy isn’t as confusing as Democrats across the country might find it. To progressives, this race is the biggest chance since last November for the anti-Trump “resistance” to push back against the GOP with an increasingly left-wing message. But Virginia isn’t anywhere near as blue as the activist class outside the state likely believes it is, and Northam knows that better than anyone.
One great example is the ongoing controversy over the potential Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a natural-gas line that would span 600 miles underground from West Virginia to North Carolina, crossing through much of Virginia on its way. The incumbent Virginia governor, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, has supported the project since 2014 for its economic-development potential. But the pipeline has put Northam in an awkward position, forcing him to choose between his left-wing base — which strongly opposes the project over environmental concerns — and the average Virginian, given that the majority of his state supports the pipeline.
At the first general-election debate, Northam was confronted by a disruptive protester calling the Democrat’s support for the pipeline “grotesque.” In last night’s debate, Northam tried to dodge the topic, offering pat answers about environmental responsibility before finally admitting that he continues to support the pipeline project. His choice to do so reveals that there is still considerable pressure in Virginia for left-wing candidates to moderate their positions while seeking office.
Virginia politics aren’t such that Northam has to feign conservative beliefs in order to compete with Gillespie — as Democrat Jon Ossoff did, for example, when running against Republican Karen Handel in Georgia’s sixth congressional district. But the race so far has illustrated that Virginia isn’t so much turning blue as trending blue. And if Northam caves to pressure from national Democrats to sing a progressive tune, the Commonwealth may be turning red again come November.
— Alexandra DeSanctis is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow in Political Journalism at National Review Institute.