The Virginia gubernatorial election always draws attention because (1) it occurs during the barren electoral year that follows presidential races and (2) it occurs in a swing state, albeit one that has been trending Democrat. Thus, fairly or not, the race typically is viewed as portentous for the party that loses.
This year, the Democratic candidate is Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam. The Republican candidate is Ed Gillespie, former chair of the Republican party and one-time councelor to President George W. Bush.
Northam led in nearly all polls throughout the summer and into the fall. However, both sides are aware that some recent Republican candidates have run significantly better in state-wide Virginia races than their poll numbers suggested they would. Indeed, Gillespie, though running far behind Sen. Mark Warner in 2014, nearly upset him on election day. Thus, there have been reports of nervousness among Virginia Democrats.
Today, they must be very nervous. A Monmouth poll finds Gillespie leading Northam by one percentage point. As far as I can tell, this is the first time since January that a publicly reported poll found more Gillespie voters than Northam ones.
The lead is not statistically significant, but it suggests that the race is deadlocked. I should also note that, although Northam was ahead in three polls taken earlier this month, in two of the three his lead, though larger than one point, fell within the margin of error.
In one sense, and one sense only, this poll isn’t such good news for Gillespie. Some left-wingers have been complaining that their side isn’t paying enough attention to the race. Here’s Paul Krugman:
For whatever reason. . .Virginia isn’t getting nearly as much play in national media or, as far as I can tell, among progressive activists, as it deserves. Folks, right now this is where the action is: Virginia is now the most important place on the U.S. political landscape — and what happens there could decide the fate of the nation.
The end of this quote constitutes strong evidence that Krugman is unhinged, but the first sentence is probably accurate. Perhaps the Monmouth poll will spark “progressive activists” into the kind of aggressive politicking Krugman wants.
Why has Gillespie pulled basically even with Northam? I don’t know. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if his attack on the Lieutenant Governor’s decisive vote against legislation banning sanctuary cities in Virginia has played a role. In a powerful campaign ad, the Gillespie campaign says that Northam’s vote increases the threat posed by the gang MS-13. I wrote about that ad here.
The theme works for Gillespie at a couple of levels, I think. First, it should help Gillespie in Northern Virginia, normally a stronghold for the Dems, because the despicable gang causes so much havoc there.
Second, it could help Gillespie connect with, or at least gain the grudging support of, hard core pro-Trumpers. Gillespie narrowly won the Republican nomination over a candidate from that movement. It’s difficult to see Gillespie prevailing in the general election without considerable backing from core Trump supporters. The sanctuary city/MS-13 issue should resonate with them.
Because of Gillespie’s uneasy relationship with the Trump movement it is misleading to view this election as a referendum on President Trump. And because Virginia has been trending Democrat for years, it would be particularly misleading to view a Gillespie defeat that way.
However, Virginia can perhaps be viewed a dress rehearsal for 2018, when many an “establishment” Republican, after being challenged in a primary, will face the same task Gillespie has confronted — running a basically center-right campaign while maintaining support from the hard core Trump faction