2017 Virginia Statewide Races: Governor

With the Virginia Gubernatorial election less than 48 hours away, things are looking very close. In what had been a Democratic-tilting race, polls show that the GOP has made notable gains in the past week. This isn’t a surprise, though: elections in the Old Dominion often tighten the closer election day comes.

In June, Democrats nominated Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam (D) – a doctor by training Northam, previously represented the Tidewater region in the State Senate. Ed Gillespie (R), served head of the Republican National Committee, and Counselor to President George W. Bush. Before this year, Gillespie was known for nearly upsetting Sen. Mark Warner in 2014. The race has gotten plenty of national attention, and is being cited as a real referendum to Donald Trump’s presidency.

But in reality, it’s not. From 1977 to 2009, Virginia always elected a Governor that was opposite to the party of the incumbent President, with the exception of the 2013 Gubernatorial race, when former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAullife (D) beat Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R) by 2.6%. This break in electoral tradition is often cited as an example of increasingly Virginia’s blue lean.

With the Presidency now in Republican hands, the GOP is working to continue the trend that began in 2013. Virginia hasn’t elected a Republican in a statewide election since 2009, when Republicans won the offices of Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General. The next statewide election would be in 2012, when former Governor Tim Kaine (D) would run for Jim Webb’s (D) open seat in the U.S. Senate, against former Governor George Allen (R). Two years later, Senator Mark Warner (D) would beat Ed Gillespie with a razor-thin margin, contrary to what polls would suggest the results would be, which had Warner winning by a much larger margin.

In the 2016 Presidential election, Secretary Clinton carried Virginia by 5.3%. That year, Red Virginia had gotten redder, and Blue Virginia had gotten bluer (with the exception of counties with large African American populations, due to lower voter turnout).

In 2016, Secretary Clinton made notable gains in most of the traditional swing counties. In 2014, Ed Gillespie would beat Mark Warner in Loudoun County by 0.5%. In 2016, Hillary Clinton would beat Donald Trump there by 17%. In Chesterfield County, Gillespie would beat Warner by 8.7%. In 2016, Donald Trump would beat Hillary Clinton there by 2.3%. To put it simply, Virginia is a very ‘establishment‘ state – it tends to vote against edgy populists, and will support for whomever casts runs more towards the center, regardless of party.

It’s difficult to say whether Ed Gillespie’s strategy of disregarding this crucial factor is extremely dumb, or wickedly smart. Gillespie, who was painted as a “Washington establishment” figure during the Virginia Republican Gubernatorial primary, narrowly beat Trump-ish populist Corey Stewart. As a result, Gillespie has run rightward to court Trump’s base, at the risk of alienating moderates. Perhaps Gillespie’s campaign believes that they wouldn’t be able to win over moderates, and that their only hope was to align Gillespie with the Trump administration. This strategy has moved moderates towards Northam. In every recent poll, moderates said they would be voting for Northam over Gillespie.
In terms of campaign finance, Northam is outpacing Gillespie, but the Republican is closing in. Just a few days ago, Gillespie got $3M from the Republican Governors Association. Even with this contribution though, Northam still has a decent advantage over Gillespie. Northam spent $14M in October, while Gillespie spent $10M. Northam also outraised Gillespie by $1.3M.

Northam also has stronger ground game than Gillespie. Fueled by the anti-Trump resistance, Northam has had a record number of volunteers for his campaign. Northam is knocking on the doors of Democrats who vote, Democrats who sometimes vote, independents, and moderate Republicans. Gillespie is focusing on getting Republicans to turn out, knocking on doors for Republicans who don’t always vote, as well as independents.

Any reverse-coattails effects on election night will be worth watching. Downballot, some things to note will be: 1) Mark Herring’s margin of victory in the Attorney General race 2) how closely the Lieutenant Governor’s race mirrors the Gubernatorial contest and 3) in the House of Delegates races.

All things considered, we believe the race will be close, especially given the recent trajectory of the polls. Some members of the Desk are predicting a Gillespie win, some are predicting a Northam holds it for the Democrats. Toss-up.


In 2013 Governor Terry McAullife won by 2.52%:

In 2013, Ralph Norham won his Lieutenant Governor’s race by 11%:

In 2014, Ed Gillespie nearly beat Senator Mark Warner:

In this summer’s primary, Northam beat ex-Congressman Tom Perriello by 12%, while Gillespie narrowly beat PWC Supervsior Corey Stewart: