Ralph Northam should win Tuesday’s election.
If you’ve paid any attention to local and national media, you probably have heard that this race has been tightening for weeks. This is understandable; mainstream media outlets are famously prone to horserace coverage, and a competitive race always makes for a better story. Plus, Northam has had some hiccups lately. He recently clarified his opposition to the idea of sanctuary cities; this is not, as Republicans have claimed, a “flip-flop,” but his position has not been welcomed by progressive Dems. And Northam has been blamed, fairly or not, for an inflammatory television ad from the Latino Victory fund that showed immigrant kids dreaming of Gillespie supporters running them down in a truck.
(By the way, the amount of pearl clutching over this ad by Republicans, after Gillespie’s campaign has essentially blamed Northam for arming Latino gang members and pedophiles, is almost stunning in its hypocrisy. Almost.)
Despite all these problems, Northam is actually in good shape; however, the “tight race” narrative may be underestimating his chances for victory. In fact, there are three key structural factors underlying the race that should give Northam a victory, even a comfortable one.
1. Blue Virginia
I’m far from the first to point this out, but more and more of Virginia is voting Democratic. The growth of the Northern Virginia suburbs and the increasingly cosmopolitan urban corridor from Washington DC through Richmond to Hampton Roads has led to Democrats dominating statewide races over the past few election cycles. Hillary Clinton won the state last year by over five percentage points.
Both major party candidates in the Governor’s race have recognized this demographic change. Northam, wisely or not, has essentially blown off the Southwest part of the state; Gillespie is taking his support there for granted. That region of Virginia feels so ignored that the Bristol Herald Courier actually refused to endorse either candidate.
Still, voter turnout in state elections is typically different – and way lower – than a presidential one. This is especially true in Virginia’s “off-off-year” election cycle, where there isn’t even a Congressional mid-term election to drive turnout. Northam cannot count on all those Hillary voters to turn out just for him. But that’s where the other two factors come in.
2. The #Resistance
While the media story is that the race for Governor is tightening, the polls actually tell a different tale; they have tended to fluctuate wildly from a slight Gillespie lead to a huge Northam victory. Much of this has to do with polling techniques; but these different methodologies are all trying to get at one thing: taking a sample of opinions and using it to predict voter turnout. And here’s the thing: no one has any idea who a “likely voter” is in post-Trump America.
If this were a normal year, Gillespie would have a significant advantage in turnout, which typically skews older and more conservative in non-Presidential years. But there’s nothing normal about politics these days. Virginia progressives are just as riled up about Trump as the rest of the country, and many Democrats hope their anger at Trump will translate into a political victory here in Virginia.
It’s not clear how persistent the effects of Trump’s Presidency are or how extensively antagonism towards Trump affects local politics. Nonetheless, Democrats have to be encouraged by the limited data available on special elections since Trump’s victory last fall. Democrats haven’t picked up many seats in either Congress or state legislatures, but the swings in turnout have favored Democrats, sometimes by huge margins.
If Northam can get a similar kind of bump from anti-Trump voters, he’s in good shape this week. But it’s not just Trump’s direct effect on voter turnout; there’s one more, a related factor that’s possibly overlooked in Tuesday’s election: legislative races.
3. Looking Down-Ballot
It has been widely reported that Democrats this year were able to field a record-breaking number of challengers for seats in the House of the Delegates. Many of these candidates were “inspired” by Trump’s victory to get into politics. Despite their enthusiasm, most of these challengers will not win against entrenched Republican incumbents; and so Democrats are unlikely to break the tight (and largely gerrymandered) hold that Republicans have on the state legislature. But what these challengers will do is bring Democrats to the polls.
For example, in House District 73, my Randolph-Macon colleague Deb Rodman is running a strong campaign against incumbent John O’Bannon. The Republican is still favored to win here, although it’s no slam-dunk for O’Bannon. But even if Rodman falls short, she can turn out hundreds, if not thousands, of Dems who might otherwise stay home. These Rodman supporters will almost surely add to the vote total for Northam, not to mention other statewide candidates Justin Fairfax and Mark Herring. Similar bumps in another 20 or 30 House districts can add up quickly.
So: all of these factors point directly to a Northam win. The national political environment, combined with increasingly favorable state demographics, should deliver the Governor’s mansion to the Democrats for another four years, ensuring a progressive check on the Republican legislature’s more conservative policy proposals of the past few years.
But what if Northam loses?
Even Gillespie can’t possibly expect a Republican landslide. But he could eke out a narrow win. If the “tightening race” story has more truth to it than I’m allowing here, and Gillespie achieves the political upset he came so tantalizingly close to achieving in his last statewide race, what does it mean?
Gillespie started his campaign as a centrist, establishment Republican focusing on economic issues. He has ended it by resorting to xenophobic fearmongering and pandering to neo-Confederates. Since Gillespie was almost beaten in the primary by the right-wing blowhard Corey Stewart, he has strategically and emphatically embraced Stewart’s agenda and tactics in order to shore up support among the Republican base. Northam’s entire campaign strategy has been to tie Gillespie to Trump – and Gillespie is essentially leaning into the curve. He’s clearly gambling on the Trump formula to win in Virginia.
If it works, and Gillespie wins on Tuesday, it validates his rightward turn and locks in the Republican strategy nationwide for the foreseeable future. (Republicans may rely it on anyway; after Trump laid waste to the rest of the party’s elites in the Presidential primaries, it might be all they know how to do.) A Gillespie win would show that Trump is no aberration – that it wasn’t just Trump’s peculiar mix of outrageous charisma, wealth and white supremacy that led to his victory. It will show that conservatives can win on white backlash anytime and anywhere.
Ralph Northam should win on Tuesday. If he loses, then we’ve lost a lot more than an election.