Every four years Virginia picks a new governor, and every four years the battleground state’s results are read as a sign of what’s to come in the following year’s midterms.
This year the focus is even more intense.
GOP establishment favorite Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman, appears poised to resist a Trump-inspired challenger. But Democrats are torn between Lieutenant Gov. Ralph Northam, the longtime favorite, and former Rep. Tom Perriello, who unexpectedly jumped into the race in January after Donald Trump’s win.
When the polls close Tuesday, Democrats will have a clearer idea of the party’s dividing lines and Republicans will learn a little more about the vagaries of Trump-era elections. And Virginia will offer a few more clues about the shape of the off-year general election in November — when it joins New Jersey as one of just two states to elect new governors.
As Virginians go to the polls, here are POLITICO’s five things to watch:
The state of the insurgencies
There hasn’t been much primary polling. But the limited data suggests Gillespie is far ahead of his opponents, which include Corey Stewart, the chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors and the chair of Trump’s presidential campaign in Virginia. If that’s true, it suggests the Virginia GOP primary electorate isn’t enamored of the brand of Trump-inspired insurgent politics that have typified Stewart’s campaign.
On the Democratic side, Perriello has tried hard to run as the outsider, leaning heavily on his endorsements from Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to gain attention. His closing ads feature both progressive icons, as well as footage from a rally he held with Barack Obama in 2010. Northam, by contrast, has focused more on the in-state support he has from nearly the entire Virginia Democratic establishment — including Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Attorney General Mark Herring, all of the Democrats in the General Assembly, and all but one of the state’s six Democratic members of Congress.
While Perriello has tried to tie himself to Sanders and Warren, the truth is that his politics are largely in line with Northam — the only real difference is political positioning.
"I have no doubt that the result will be over-read and misinterpreted as either a win for the establishment or a win for the insurgency, when that doesn’t reflect what the voters in the state have been hearing,” said Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson, a veteran of Virginia politics.
People close to Sanders are now worried that if Perriello loses, it might look like a repudiation of the Vermont senator’s brand of politics. But if the former congressman pulls out a victory, more moderate-minded Democrats are ready to read it as a sign that their 2018 candidates should learn to run as outsiders.
The cash gap
One reason many Virginia Democrats quietly expect Northam to win the tight race: he’s outspending Perriello by a wide margin.
The state’s no. 2 elected official has nearly doubled the former congressman’s spending on television ads, a media spending tracker told POLITICO earlier this month.
But while Northam has focused more on television, Perriello’s campaign has leaned more heavily on digital advertising. The result, therefore, may turn out to be a referendum on the effectiveness of traditional advertising strategies — like Northam’s — versus new approaches like Perriello’s.
It’s an unexpected turn: Northam has been in the race, raising money for an expected drawn-out general election, since February 2015. But Perriello’s entrance forced Northam to deplete his stockpile and step up his fundraising, putting more of a premium on the money game than expected.
How big is the electorate?
Last time there was a competitive statewide primary in Virginia, nearly 320,000 Democrats turned out. Perriello is hoping Tuesday’s number is even higher than that, while Northam would be just fine with a number similar to 2009.
Both sides will be watching the turnout with New Jersey in mind. During that state’s primaries last week, an unexpectedly high number of excited Democrats voted despite a relatively noncompetitive primary. The two states’ results rarely correlate neatly, but if Virginia’s turnout mirrors that surprise, Perriello may be in for a good night.
A Northam victory would likely come from his base of support in Hampton Roads and Norfolk, while Perriello will likely need high turnout from the central part of the state, closer to the Charlottesville-area district he represented in Congress. Both will be competing heavily for Northern Virginia — a region that may end up proving the critical swing vote in the closing days, after the Washington Post issued its influential endorsement for Northam.
For Perriello to pull out a victory, he’ll need the electorate to expand beyond traditional primary voters, including younger Virginians and any college students who may be in-state. One problem: many colleges have let out for the summer.
The nationalization of Virginia politics
A former Democratic National Committee chairman is the current governor. A former Republican National Committee chairman is running to be the next governor.
It’s all part of the ongoing nationalization of Virginia politics.
Tuesday’s primary is proving to be a test of how far the state has moved in that direction. If Gillespie wins the GOP nomination and the governorship, it will mark the fourth time since 2001 that a Virginia governor has served as a national party chairman.
Plus, said former Virginia GOP Gov. Jim Gilmore — a former RNC chair himself — a Gillespie win would also highlight the degree to which Trump’s voters there are focused on national issues, as well.
"Is Gillespie acceptable to the Trump base? My sense of things is he will be acceptable to the Trump base, because the Trump base is not focused on the issue of Gillespie versus Corey Stewart versus [state Sen.] Frank Wagner," Gilmore said. "The Trump base is more focused on the Democrats’ behavior nationwide."
The gravitational pull of national politics is also being felt in the Democratic primary. Perriello, who’s backed by prominent Obama administration officials and top progressive leaders, has gained attention for his stances on national issues and his forceful denunciations of President Donald Trump while Northam’s become known more for his focus on on-the-ground issues within the state.
Northam has also gone after Trump in sharp terms and Perriello has criss-crossed the state talking to voters about issues that affect them every day, but the choice between them has been caricatured as a choice between sending a national message about resisting Trump and building up the party’s reserves from the ground.
How does Trump affect the GOP base?
One of the most significant political developments of the Trump era has been the heightened engagement of the Democratic base, which is more excited about resisting the White House’s agenda and electing Democrats than it has been in years. Tuesday’s vote in Virginia will present one of the first opportunities to test whether the Republican base is following suit.
While Gillespie is expected to cruise to a comfortable win, he is likely running in a low turnout contest — which makes a surprise result possible. So Democrats will be watching the Republican side closely, not only to see whether the longtime establishment honcho can pull out a wide victory, but to see if a large portion of the GOP electorate is skeptical of him, 16 months after Trump won the state’s presidential primary.
They’ll be looking at his acceptability to the voters of Fairfax County, where Gillespie would need to keep the Democrats’ margin down in November in order to win.
"If Gillespie is performing well in Fairfax County, that’s a good sign for him in November," said Gilmore. "If he’s performing badly [there], then you gotta worry."
But both parties will look even more closely at the more rural parts of the state, where a Republican will likely need big winning margins in November to win the general election.
If there are signs Gillespie is struggling among Trump-friendly voters in those areas, it could be a problem for him in five months. But if those areas have a higher turnout than expected, Democrats will likely need to recalibrate their assumption that Trump will prove to be a drag on Republican candidates come 2018.