By Hastings Wyman –
After the votes were counted in last week’s Democratic and Republican primaries in Virginia, it was clear that the returns put the Democrats in a much better place than the GOP.
Much of the Democrats’ advantage can be found in the results of the Republican Primary, where former GOP national chairman Ed Gillespie came in first with 44% (159,983), followed closely by Prince William County Supervisor Corey Stewart with 43% (155,447). A third, somewhat more moderate candidate, state Sen. Frank Wagner, finished with 14% (50,307).
“There’s no question that the surprise of the night was that the Republican Primary was closer than the Democrats,” with Gillespie’s victory “a knife’s edge,” says Geoffrey Skelley, political analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “Stewart nearly pulled it out. Republican voters now really seem to be going for messages that echo what Donald Trump was saying in 2016. Stewart gained notoriety defending Confederate monuments. People associated him with that view.”
“The big surprise was the close contest for the GOP nomination,” says Mark Rozell, Dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. “Pre-primary polls showed Gillespie with a big lead, but he won a very narrow margin over Stewart. I attribute that to an enthusiasm gap. Stewart had a committed following of Trump Republicans and on a low turnout off-cycle primary they made it much closer than anyone expected. This portends potential trouble for Gillespie in the general election. He needs to bring in those Trump Republicans without alienating moderate voters. Hard to do.”
Gillespie has focused on economic issues, especially on helping the startups and expansion of small businesses. He also opposes abortion, and supports cutting taxes, second amendment rights and school choice. However, he has kept his distance from Trump, both as a candidate and as president. Whether this combination will appeal sufficiently to Stewart’s supporters remains to be seen.
The primary results on the Republican side illustrate the difficulty pollsters have discerning the opinions of rebellious conservatives, out of step with mainstream views as portrayed in the media. One of the latest pre-primary polls, released by the Washington Post on May 15, showed that among Republicans, Gillespie led with 38%, Stewart had 18% and Wagner was a close third with 15%. In the last five pre-primary polls cited by Real Clear Politics, Gillespie’s margin ranged from a low of 16% to a high of 27%, a far cry for the 1.18 point margin he ended up with. Are the respondent samples flawed? Do rightwing voters decline to talk to pollsters? The same phenomenon was present in the presidential election last fall, when virtually no pollsters predicted a Trump victory.
In the Democratic Primary, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam won a decisive win over former US Rep. Tom Perriello, 56% (303,491) to 44% (239,234). Moreover, far more people chose to vote in the Democratic Primary than in the Republican: 542,725 (D) to 365,737 (R), which is favorable to Northam.
Notes Skelley, “Northam had all of the institutional support of the state Democratic Party,” including Gov. Terry McAuliffe, US Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, the Democratic members of the US House and all of the Democratic members of the legislature. “This meant more than the endorsements of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.” Says Rozell, “In the end, the insurgents failed in both parties and the establishment candidates won.”
Another plus for Northam was Northern Virginia, consisting of counties and cities that form the suburbs of Washington, DC, where Northam “was helped by the Washington Post endorsement,” says Skelley. By contrast, although this area is home to a number of moderates and independents, Gillespie led Stewart by a mere 1,300 votes in this region. Trump lost this region by some 382,000 votes last fall, which figured in Hillary Clinton’s sole victory in a state of the Old Confederacy. Northam is likely to run well here again this fall.
Northam also has a unified Democratic Party behind him, receiving a generous endorsement from Perriello early on Election Night. By contrast, Gillespie, while acknowledging he will vote the Republican ticket, told the Washington Post, “Unless [Gillespie] stands up and takes our position on defending our heritage and our history, supporting the president, cracking down on illegal immigration, those who supported me are not going to go with him.” (Stewart also indicated that he might run against US Sen. Tim Kaine (D) next year.) But it will be difficult for Gillespie to please both Stewart’s ardent Trump supporters and the independents, moderates and conservative Democrats he will need to defeat Northam.
A potential problem for Democrats is turnout. In an off-off-year election, African-American voters, a major component of the Democratic base, often don’t turnout in large numbers. This year, however, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor is Justin Fairfax, who is black. This may help them increase minority turnout.
“What’s really most interesting for me,” says Professor Harry Wilson, Director for the Institute for Policy & Opinion Research at Roanoke College, “is that each party has a reason to be pleased with their own candidate and reason to be displeased with the candidate the other party chose.” The Democrats would have preferred to run against pro-Trump right-winger Corey Stewart, “who would have been wiped out in November.” Similarly, Republicans would have preferred that Perriello had won the Democratic Primary, as the liberal former congressman had the active support of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and would have presented a much bigger target for GOP attacks in the fall. Instead, the GOP must run against the more moderate Democrat, Lt. Gov. Northam, and the Democrats now face Gillespie, a mainstream GOPer who can potentially appeal to independents and moderates.
Wilson adds, “This will be a relatively close election, with not a lot of fireworks, an election where most people are basically reasonable.”
For now, the primary returns give strong evidence that Democrat Northam is a heavy favorite heading into this November. Gillespie will need all his skills as a political strategist, plus some luck that hasn’t been coming the GOP’s way of late, to make this one competitive. Stay tuned.