Who’s in Charge Here: The State of the Governor’s Race

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — On Tuesday, the two candidates for Virginia Governor, Republican Ed Gillespie and Democrat Ralph Northam, had a mostly civil debate. (The Washington Post used “clash” in their headline about the event, but even they told a story of largely “cordial” disagreements.)

Everyone wants to know who “wins” political debates. Although that’s not the best way to look at it, sometimes particular candidates can have stronger performances. Of course, partisans of both sides were spinning their guy as last night’s winner.

As for me, I agree with Christopher Newport’s Quentin Kidd: it was pretty much a draw. Both candidates mostly accomplished what they wanted last night. If campaigns are about story-telling, then both Ralph and Ed effectively used the debate to continue to tell theirs.

So with just under seven weeks to go until Election Day, let’s assess: here, in my view, are your three key takeaways about the state of the race.1. The Debate Changed Nothing

The dynamics of the race have been pretty well set for month, and nothing about last night’s debate has really changed them. As I’ve been saying for months, the key dynamic is not Ralph vs. Ed, but Ed Gillespie’s tough path trying to negotiate a post-Trump Republican Party. Here’s what I said on July 3:

And this is the story of this Virginia gubernatorial campaign. Gillespie’s real opponent is not the Democratic nominee, Lt. Governor Ralph Northam, but the Twitter troll currently occupying the White House. How much should, or even can, Gillespie embrace an unpopular national figure? How can he reach out to moderate voters without alienating his base?

And so last night, we saw Northam continue the chief strategy of his campaign: tying Gillespie to national politics. Overall, Gillespie has done a good job trying to steer the conversation back to Virginia, with only some occasional – and with his dumb and abandoned fireworks gambit, almost literal – misfires.

But the path to victory for Gillespie, a longtime DC insider, was always going to be based on his appeal to independents and moderate NoVA Democrats, not his ability to fire up the #MAGA crowd. Trump’s reconfiguring of Republican politics around his inconsistent populism has to have SOME effect on Virgina politics. No politico lost more than Ed Gillespie last November. (Well, maybe one.)2. Northam is Still the Frontrunner

Republicans have been cheered by some recent poll data, but the race is still Ralph’s to lose. He has significantly more cash in hand as they head into the stretch run, although the Republican Governor’s Association is apparently adding another $1M to the millions they’ve already contributed. (After Gillespie’s nail-biter loss to Mark Warner in 2014, no one is giving up on Ed this time.)

Northam has the demographics on his side in an increasingly blue state, where the growing number of voters in the Northern Virginia suburbs of D.C. are beginning to dominate state-wide races. And he may have the momentum and enthusiasm on his side thanks to a national GOP led by a man who might be the most polarizing figure in American political history. (Athough: see #3 below.)

It would NOT be a huge shocker if Gillespie won the election – he’s proven to be a disciplined, effective candidate. (He is certainly, and unsurprisingly, a better debater than his opponent.) But he has the odds stacked against him. What’s more is that Gillespie knows it; his debate gambit – calling for more debates against his opponent – is a classic underdog strategy.3. Who Will Vote?

The big question for the election is who will turn out in our arbitrary off-year Virginia election.

The fact that Virginia holds its statewide elections in odd years, rather than alongside Presidential or even Congressional mid-term elections, normally favors the Republican candidate for Governor. The GOP electorate is older, and possibly more ideologically committed; they tend to turn out in greater numbers than Democratic voters in primaries and non-Presidential years.

But the dynamics of politics in the post-Trump era may throw off this calculus. Democrats are fired up. One reason everyone in the country is paying such outsized attention to special elections is because they want to know if Trump’s record unpopularity will doom GOP candidates, even in local races. Election observers have long claimed that an increasing partisan divide might be “nationalizing” local elections, and Virginia will be no different.

But there are even more concrete reasons to think Dem turnout could be high. There are now strong Democratic candidates for Delegate all over the state. My colleague Deb Rodman, for example, may have a tough time defeating incumbent John O’Bannon in the 73rd this fall. But even if she falls short, she’ll turn out thousands of Democratic voters for the top of the ticket – in a district where O’Bannon previously ran unopposed.

As much as Republicans have crowed about Gillespie’s standing in the polls, recent data still favors Northam even more than his opponent. Election watchers Decision Desk HQ noted that five different polls were released within 48 hours this week, and ranged from a dead heat to a big Northam lead. (Quinnipiac had him up by a whopping 10 points; I’m waiting to see what CNU has to say.)

I suspect this volatility might be because the pollsters don’t have a good handle on what a “likely” voter is in this new environment. Will Republicans, especially Trump supporters, vote for a former DC lobbyist? Are Democrats revved up enough by Trump to vote for Northam, a “low-key country kid” who some describe as boring?

I don’t do election predictions, especially after what we’ve seen in recent races. But all the signs suggest that the Virginia Governor’s race is still Ralph Northam’s to lose.

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