Virginia Votes: An Election Preview

Jansen VanderMeulen '19
Executive Editor

Gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie. Photo courtesy of the Richmond Times Dispatch.

Gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie. Photo courtesy of the Richmond Times Dispatch.

Gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam. Photo courtesy of the Richmond Times Dispatch.

Gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam. Photo courtesy of the Richmond Times Dispatch.

Diligent students of American politics will know that most American states hold statewide elections in even-numbered years to coincide with federal elections. There are five exceptions: Kentucky, Mississippi, and Louisiana, which hold statewide elections during the year prior to presidential elections; and New Jersey and Virginia, which elect their statewide officials in the year following the election of the president. These elections are often viewed, fairly or not, as signs of political things to come; the 2009 election of Republicans Chris Christie and Bob McDonnell as governors of, respectively, New Jersey and Virginia—held just a year after Barack Obama’s election as President—was widely interpreted as a harbinger of the 2010 Republican wave in Congress.

Virginia is unique among the fifty states in another way: It is the only state to forbid its governors from serving consecutive terms. As such, Governor Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat elected in 2013, is ineligible to seek re-election, and Virginia will have a new governor in January of 2018. Virginia Republicans nominated Ed Gillespie, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee under George W. Bush and unsuccessful nominee for the U.S. Senate in 2014. The Virginia Democratic Party nominated Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam, a physician and former state senator. Northam defeated former Congressman Tom Periello (D-Charlottesville) in a fiercely contested primary election that many in the national media portrayed as “a Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders redux,”1 with Northam representing the more moderate Clinton wing.

Accompanied on election night only by a sleepy New Jersey gubernatorial election—Chris Christie’s lieutenant governor, Republican Kim Guadagno, is expected to lose handily to Democratic financier Phil Murphy in the shadow of Christie’s woeful approval ratings—Virginia’s election for governor has attracted an outsized spotlight of polling and commentary. Gillespie ran a surprisingly close race for Senate in 2014, nearly pulling off a massive upset to defeat popular Democratic Sen. Mark Warner even as Virginia continues to lean more Democratic.2 Northam, meanwhile, cruised to victory in 2013, pummeling Republican minister E.W. Jackson 55–45 even as McAuliffe only narrowly defeated conservative Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. Focus on the race grew with the competitive Northam-Periello primary, and expanded further when Gillespie had more difficulty than expected in defeating Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chair Corey Stewart in the Republican primary. Stewart, a native Minnesotan and staunch supporter of President Donald Trump, centered his campaign around “protecting Virginia’s heritage,”3 including its Confederate statues, and derisively labeled Gillespie “Establishment Ed.” On election night, Gillespie defeated Stewart by fewer than 5,000 votes out of more than 365,000 cast.

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe. Photo courtesy of CNN.

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe. Photo courtesy of CNN.

The resulting general election campaign has been sharp-elbowed and well funded. Virginians with television sets are by now well versed in each side’s attacks: Gillespie, says Northam, is a Trump-loving, neoconfederate apologist who would inflict a Handmaid’s Tale-like future on Virginia’s women. Northam, according to Gillespie, is soft on MS-13—the notorious Central American gang—and out to erase Virginia’s glorious Confederate history. Northam raised more than $7 million in September alone, while Gillespie pulled in nearly $4.5 million in the same time period. Polling of the race is wildly divergent. A Hampton University poll from October 25 had Gillespie up eight points,4 while an October 30 poll from Quinnipiac University gave Northam a seventeen-point lead.5 The Real Clear Politics average has Northam leading by 3.3 percent.6 History says Northam is favored: In nine of its last ten gubernatorial elections, Virginia has elected the candidate of the party out of the White House. The one exception? McAuliffe’s narrow 2013 victory, which was seen as a symptom of Virginia’s continued drift to the Democratic column. Once reliably Republican—the commonwealth voted Republican in every presidential election between 1964 and 2008—Virginia has moved leftward with the explosive growth of the affluent Northern Virginia suburbs, voting twice for Barack Obama and most recently for Hillary Clinton in 2016. With conflicting polling and mudslinging on both sides, Northam’s advantage with polling and cash-on-hand make him the smart bet. But wise Law School community members will remember the unreliable polls of 2016 and proceed with caution in making predictions.

Alongside the gubernatorial election, Virginians will cast ballots for lieutenant governor and attorney general. In the lieutenant governor race, ex-federal prosecutor and Venable attorney Justin Fairfax (D) faces off against attorney and state Sen. Jill Vogel (R). Fairfax would be Virginia’s first black statewide official since Democratic Gov. Doug Wilder left office in 1994. While Northam has advocated for the removal of Confederate statutes in the wake of the August 11 and 12 Charlottesville rallies, Fairfax has trod more carefully, calling for the issue to be handled locally. Vogel has tried to toe a difficult line between old and new Virginia: Her campaign has reached out to socially liberal Northern Virginians by handing out rainbow stickers at LGBT parades, but she was known in the legislature as a sponsor of Virginia’s transvaginal ultrasound bill. While less prominent than the gubernatorial race, the lieutenant governor’s race is also expected to be close.

Finally, Virginians will select an attorney general. Incumbent Democrat Mark Herring is seeking re-election, challenged by a Republican with a famous name: Richmond attorney John Adams. Herring won Virginia’s narrowest race in 2013, defeating fellow state Sen. Mark Obenshain (R) by just over 800 votes, but is favored over Adams going into Tuesday’s election. Adams, a McGuireWoods attorney and former clerk to Justice Clarence Thomas, criticized the incumbent over his “political” refusal to defend the commonwealth’s constitutional amendment that limited marriage to one man and one woman prior to the Obergefell decision.7 Herring defended his tenure, noting his work to eradicate human trafficking.8

Virginia’s elections will be held Tuesday, November 7. For those anxious to know what 2018 holds in the Age of Trump, Tuesday’s elections could be a good indicator of what is to come.