When the Virginians pick a new governor next Tuesday, we may, perhaps for the first time since President Trump was elected, glean some valuable intelligence at the midpoint before the pivotal midterm elections next year.
How do the issues of taxes, immigration (especially sanctuary cities), and cultural issues like Confederate statues play in a reliably competitive battleground state? Do Trump voters turnout in rural Virginia, especially in southwest Virginia, without Mr. Trump himself on the ballot?
And can a mainstream Democrat nominee motivate liberal voters, including reliable constituencies among black, Hispanic, female, millennial and college-educated voters?
One former Virginia elected official described the race between Republican Ed Gillespie and Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam as coming down to NOVA ” Northern Virginia ” vs. ROVA ” the “Rest of Virginia.”
Elected officials, donors, challengers, operatives and journalists will be poring over the results for what it tells us about the electorate 10 months into the Trump presidency and one year from next year’s midterm elections.
Nationally, Democrats are aiming to retake the House, but must win a net of 24 seats to do so, and hope to narrow the already modest Republican majority in the Senate. Either outcome would make it even more difficult for Mr. Trump to advance his agenda in 2019.
Perhaps most acutely, incumbents will be reviewing the election results to decide whether to seek reelection in 2018. Already, some 20 Republican congressional incumbents have announced their retirement, while just 10 Democrats have made the same decision. Among Republicans, the group has included powerful members of the House Ways and Means Committee and at least one major committee chairman who was term-limited in his powerful post.
In the last 24 hours, The Washington Times’ Seth McLaughlin reported that the Republican National Committee and the Republican Governors Association have “poured in nearly $15 million combined into the race” to assist Mr. Gillespie. This is a sign of their confidence in his chance to win, but also their belief in his candidacy and potential as governor.
This news comes as a progressive group, Latino Victory Fund, aired a TV ad featuring an erratic, Confederate-supporting truck driver running down a group of minority children. The ad was despicable and drew harsh criticism across the ideological spectrum. The group finally agreed to pull down the ad after the fatal truck driver terrorist attack in New York City on Halloween.
The stakes in this race are high. Republicans desperately want to take back the Governor’s Mansion in Richmond, after falling short in 2013 when Terry McAuliffe outlasted Ken Cuccinelli. Democrats want to hold the office, but also reap the financial rewards of finally winning a consequential race in the Trump Era, after losing a handful of congressional special elections.
If Mr. Gillespie loses, it may signal that Republicans are facing a headwind and will need to find ways to motivate the Trump coalition, hold on to traditional GOP voters and win over some independent voters as well.
If Mr. Gillespie wins, it will create a rising star in the party, one who nearly shocked the world in 2014 by running a disciplined, efficient, focused challenge to incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, a former governor who was thought to be invincible in the Commonwealth. Mr. Gillespie lost by only 0.8 percent, or fewer than 18,000 votes.
The midterms are still a year away, which is several lifetimes in American politics. But this governor’s race will give us hard evidence about the political environment of the moment.
Matt Mackowiak is the president of Austin, Texas, and Washington, D.C.-based Potomac Strategy Group, a Republican consultant, a Bush administration and Bush-Cheney re-election campaign veteran and former press secretary to two U.S. senators. His national politics podcast, “Mack on Politics,” may be found on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher and at MackOnPolitics.com.
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