Monday, November 06, 2017

Virginia Governor Election

Status: Democrat Open
2016 Presidential Result: Blue State (South)

Outlook: Tossup (D)

I have taken advantage of the ability to wait until the eve of this election to make my final prediction, as the race has been considered to be very fluid in recent days. There is certainly much on the line in this contest to be decided tomorrow, both in terms of whom the people of the Commonwealth of Virginia will elect to be their Governor, as well as indications of the shape of the two major political parties, exactly one year after an historic Presidential election and exactly one year before a pivotal midterm election.

In truth, every four years, the Virginia Gubernatorial race gets more attention than it probably deserves as one of just two contests for Governor to take part in the first odd year after the last Presidential election. Like New Jersey, the party that wins the White House, almost always winds up up on the losing end for Governor. That was the case in 2001 when the Republican nominee fell several points short in a state that George W. Bush had easily carried the year before and while the incumbent President was in possession of as much political capital as any President in American history.

That streak did end four years ago, when Democrat Terry McAuliffe was elected in Virginia, an increasingly blue state, recently carried by Barack Obama, that had become less culturally conservative. McAuliffe prevailed in a race over a very conservative Republican in a contest where both major party nominees were seen as polarizing and unlikable. In many ways, that was a pretext for the 2016 Presidential contest, where Democrats Hillary Clinton and home state Senator Tim Kaine won Virginia by nearly six points over Donald Trump, while the unconventional Republican nominee won enough of the other battleground states to take the White House. It is worth nothing that McAuliffe had a large lead in the final polls in 2013, and was expected to win by a landslide, but only prevailed by less than three points at the end. A bit of a "moral victory" for Republicans, but still a loss nonetheless.

Now, in the only state in America where an incumbent Governor cannot seek a second term, there is some evidence to suggest that McAuliffe's mixed popularity could lead to an opening for a Republican, but the historical trends seem to suggest that this contest should be one that favors the Democrats. The fact that Donald Trump has the lowest approval ratings of any President, one year after his election, than any in the history of polling, also should favor the Democrat in this purplish blue state.

For most of the year, the Democrats were considered to have a solid edge in holding this office, but the race has seemed to change dramatically over the past month, with momentum seemingly on the side of the Republican candidate. The final round of polls out though over the past couple of days have pushed back to an extent, with them all showing a slight lead again for the Democrat, perhaps throwing some cold water on the hopes of Republicans and Trump supporters (an uneasy coalition in many cases) around the country.

This race could truly go either way and and an odd year election adds more uncertainty about turnout. If this were a midterm, I would say this race was "Leans Democrat" and for a long time, that is what I would have called this race. However, this has to be looked at as a Tossup until the votes start being counted. I am slightly less confident of an upset than I would have been about a week ago though, as I think historical trends and the political nature of the state, including divisions among non-Democrats, is more likely to cause a Republican loss, with the Democrat winning by a plurality. This year, Libertarian nominee attorney Cliff Hyra just might be spoiler.

As the saying goes though, Democrats need to win this contest more than Republicans do, with all the factors considered. While the 2018 midterms will have their own state by state dynamics, a loss in Clinton carried Virginia could and should have significant psychological scarring to Democrats, amid continued recriminations and recent finger pointing about the loss to Trump, as well as having fallen short on all of the special Congressional races the party had targeted in 2017.

In regards to the major party nominees for Governor of Virginia this year, the establishment won out over the populist movements of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. This has led both parties to be very concerned in this general election about turning out their base and getting unenthusiastic voters to the polls.

The Democrats' nominee, and once solid general election frontrunner is Ralph Northam, a physician and current Lt. Governor. A native Virginian, Northam served in the Army and considered himself a Republican before entering politics. While he has admitted to having supported Republicans such as former President George W. Bush, he now says he regrets those votes. Despite his recent statewide victory for Lt. Governor and strong support from the state party establishment, he faced a competitive primary from former Congressman Tom Perriello, who as a young House freshman, was thought of as a moderate from a pro-Republican area. That area turned out to be so pro-Republican though that Perriello was booted out of office after one term in the 2010 midterms. By the time he ran for Governor, the ex-Congressman was describing himself as a progressive ally of Bernie Sanders fighting against the party establishment. He had some significant liberal backing from Democrats around the country, but when the June votes were cast in the primary, Northam prevailed by a surprisingly large 12 points. Perriello immediately expressed support for the candidate who defeated him.

The Republican primary contest was quite different. The establishment favorite and solid frontrunner was Ed Gillespie, a New Jersey born transplant who had been raised in a family of Democrats. Gillespie though made a name for himself in Washington D.C. as one of the GOP's top movers and shakers, eventually becoming a senior official in the George W. Bush White House and after that, President Bush's choice to Chair the Republican National Committee. During the Obama years, Gillespie worked as a lobbyist and stayed active in Republican politics, including a top level role in the 2012 Mitt Romney campaign. In 2014, he ran for the U.S. Senate against popular incumbent Mark Warner in Virginia. Long thought of as a severe underdog who was mostly doing his service to the party, Election Night saw Gillespie come shockingly close to pulling off what would have been the biggest upset in the country that year. Had national Republicans provided him with more resources, he might be in the U.S. Senate today, but he fell just short, but was immediately considered a very strong candidate for Governor in 2017.

Gillespie would not have the primary field to himself however. He was challenged by State Senator Frank Wagner who would go on to finish a distant third, but chiefly by Corey Stewart, the four term Chairman of the Prince George's County Board of Supervisors. Stewart had failed in a bid to be the Republican nominee for Lt. Governor in 2013.

While Stewart had achieved political success locally, by this race, he was primarily known as a controversial and unabashed proponent of Donald Trump. In fact, the Trump campaign had fired him in Virginia because was seen as too much of a "loose cannon." Nonetheless, Stewart had strongly embraced the populist appeal of Trump and of the Tea Party. A native Minnesotan, Stewart based his Gubernatorial primary candidacy on the issue of Confederate identity and had some tenuous ties to the white nationalist movement. That proved to be especially controversial after the primary with the deadly violence that occurred in Charlottesville. Now, a candidate for U.S. Senate, Stewart made headlines by aligning himself with Trump's blame on "both sides."

Before that though, with the issue of Confederate monuments and statues playing a large role in the Republican primary, as well as the belief among many that Gillespie was beholden to a fledgling Republican establishment or being part of the Beltway "swamp", Stewart came much closer than expected, only losing to Gillespie by less than 5,000 votes and about one percent of the total vote. Let me take a moment to say that if Stewart had actually won that primary, that I, as a lifelong Republican (named Corey) would openly be supporting Northam over him in this race.

Alas though, Gillespie prevailed, narrowly, and Stewart claimed he would never preach party unity and it seemed unlikely that he or many of his supporters could ever get behind the man who had defeated them. The contrast between the two parties and the primary results and the way that the candidates behaved afterwards could not have been more stark. While most political observers conceded that Gillespie was a credible candidate, it looked like would simply have no chance of winning against the Democrats.

Throughout the summer though, while Northam led in the polls, Gillespie kept things reasonably close. This was kind of deja vu in a way with the Clinton vs. Trump race, as Northam was seen as perhaps trying to coast to victory on a lead. In many ways, his campaign messaging and lack of charisma on the trail has been compared to that of Clinton, and some Democrats have been vocal in recent days of how much that scares them.

Along the way as well, Gillespie has somehow managed to do what is pretty difficult in politics. He has maintained his establishment support, including among many voters who rejected Donald Trump, and has made major inroads with Trump supporters and Tea Party types. As one of those establishment Republicans, who has been a fan of Gillespie for years, I find myself admiring his political skill, but being somewhat uneasy about what he has had to do. He has kept Trump at arm's length, and despite the President's endorsement, never brought him in to campaign for him, but has definitely not done anything that would be seen as an outright rejection of Trump or his policies. In spite of everything that happened in Charlottesville, Gillespie, has gotten well to the right of Northam on the issue of Confederate monuments and talked about how it would be wrong to whitewash history. A lot of people in the Commonwealth seemingly agree with him on the issue.

The ads on both sides have been absolutely brutal in recent weeks as Gillespie and his allies tie Northam to crimes committed by gangbangers and support for illegal immigrants through Sanctuary Cities, which do not currently even exist in Virginia. This has clearly proven to be a problem for the Democrats, as Northam has recently flip flopped on that issue. In doing so, a left-wing grassroots group pulled their support for Northam, which is something his campaign very much did not need.

Gillespie still had not managed to get many of the non-Democrats in his corner, but might have gotten a break when a pro-Northam independent group ran a controversial ad recently in which a white driver in a pickup truck adorned with both Confederate flags and Gillespie for Governor bumper stickers (which I think would have been pretty unlikely, at least until very recently) was depicted as trying to run down (or perhaps round up for deportation) minority children on the street, until it was all a dream. The ad was declared by many as way over the top and Republicans on blogs thought it was a major error that would cost Northam the election, especially after it was pulled in the wake of last week's truck terrorist attack in New York City. I am a bit more circumspect about if that ad was ever really going to be a gamechanger in the race, but I do think it is very possible that it will have been all the motivation needed for many Gillespie-skeptic voters on the right to cast a ballot for him. After his initial spouting off, even Corey Stewart is seen as tacitly in support, though no formal endorsement has been made, and the possibility that if there was one, it might do as much harm as good.

The bottom line is though that Gillespie now has Bush-Romney Republicans as well as Trump-Bannon populists all on his side, and that is why he might have a real chance of winning. Again, as someone who has long liked Gillespie and who would enjoy seeing cocky Democrats freak out about another loss, I would like him to win tomorrow. However, if his win would be a referendum on the Confederacy after all this, I really do not care who wins. That is where I am at in politics these days, as someone who is most certainly not a Democrat, but who will never be supportive of the direction Donald Trump and his allies want to take the Republican Party and the country.

The polls now seem to point to a lead for Northam of about 3-5 points. The polls though have been wrong before recently quite a bit, including understatement of Northam's support in the recent primary, and overstatement of Gillespie's lead that same day, but more so as they relate to under support of Republicans in general, including the 2013 Gubernatorial race, Gillespie's narrow loss for the Senate the year later, and Trump coming a few points closer there in 2016 than many thought he would.

My hunch is that all the talk of momentum for Gillespie has scared enough unenthusastic Democrats in the state into backing Northam and that he will win closely, with perhaps as little as 48 percent of the vote, matching Hillary Clinton's national total from a year ago. There is no Electoral College in a Gubernatorial race though, and that means Gillespie will lose a second consecutive close statewide election. If that happens, many will claim that he would never have come as close as he did without Trump and Trump supporters, while others, such as myself would say, that he would have probably won for certain had Trump lost last year and that he was dragged down by Trump's unpopularity with moderate voters.

This is one prediction I will be more than fine with being wrong with though. If Gillespie wins, he proved his political mettle when it mattered in a way that few politicians can claim to have done and Democrats will have to do a whole lot of soul searching.