While the margins, if not the outcomes, of Virginia’s gubernatorial primaries may have been a surprise, the long view of the race remains the same — Democrats are in position to hold the commonwealth’s governorship in November.
In the Republican primary, former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie defeated Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County board of supervisors, 44 percent to 43 percent. It was a closer-than-expected margin of victory for Gillespie, the 2014 Senate nominee, over Stewart, former state chairman for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
In the Democratic primary, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam defeated former Rep. Tom Perriello, 56 percent to 44 percent. Northam was the early favorite but had to turn back a resurgent effort from the former one-term congressman, who was a casualty of the 2010 Republican wave but found recent traction with the party’s progressive base.
Gillespie came close to knocking off Democratic Sen. Mark Warner in 2014, but under different conditions. While that election was largely a referendum on President Barack Obama and Democrats in Washington, this election is likely to be overshadowed by Trump, who had a 36 percent job approval rating, according to a May 9-14 Washington Post-Schar School Virginia poll. Fifty-nine percent of Virginia respondents said they disapproved of the president’s job performance.
Stewart’s showing demonstrates that some Republican voters (voters Gillespie needs in November) are still loyal to Trump. But the GOP nominee can’t get too cozy to the president considering Trump just lost the commonwealth to Hillary Clinton by 5 points in November, and his standing nationally has slipped since he took office.
To make things more difficult, Stewart didn’t appear to have any interest in getting behind Gillespie for the general election. “There is one word you won’t hear from me, and that’s ‘unity,’” Stewart told supporters in Woodbridge on election night, according to The Washington Post. (A day later, Stewart told the Richmond Times-Dispatch he would support Gillespie in the fall.)
Democrats may also have an enthusiasm edge, considering about 542,000 voters participated in the Democratic primary compared to about 365,000 voters in the Republican primary, according to unofficial totals by the Virginia Department of Elections. And there isn’t a clear target for Gillespie and Republicans to demonize, considering outgoing Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe had a 49 percent job approval rating (with 25 percent disapproval) in the Post poll.
Northam held a 49 percent to 38 percent advantage over Gillespie in the survey’s general election ballot test, while Perriello led the former RNC chairman by a similar 50 percent to 37 percent margin, demonstrating a fundamental advantage for the Democrats.
A victory in Virginia (as well as a takeover in New Jersey, as expected) this November would help Democrats eat into the Republicans’ edge in governorships. There are currently 33 Republican governors, 16 Democratic governors and one independent in Alaska.