By Hastings Wyman –
Virginia is one of only two states – the other is New Jersey – that elects its governor next year. So even though most of the state’s voters were focused on the presidential race this year, many of the Commonwealth politicos, in both parties, had a second agenda: The 2017 contest for governor.
Incumbent Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) is term-limited and Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) will be the Democratic nominee. Hillary Clinton’s decisive win here in November – 50% to 44% for Donald Trump – boosted the Democrats’ spirits. But the GOP usually runs much stronger in non-presidential statewide races, so a competitive contest is likely.
In the first paragraph of his campaign website biography, Northam, a pediatric neurologist, lays out his background. “As a former Army doctor who cared for our soldiers during the Persian Gulf War and a practicing physician who treats Virginia’s children, I believe listening to the needs of patients is what makes a great doctor. As Lieutenant Governor, I take the same approach to serving the Commonwealth.” He also casts his lot with his party’s liberal stance on a number of issues, including his votes to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation in state government and to raise the minimum wage.
Carter Phillips, an attorney and Democratic activist in Hampton, Virginia, says that “If Hillary Clinton can win Virginia like she did,” Northam’s chances should be good, because “he doesn’t have her baggage. He fits in real well. He’s a rural guy, but worked in the big city of Norfolk. He really is an ideal candidate.” And Phillips notes that when he attended a recent Northam fundraiser, “I got the impression that there are a lot of people who normally vote Republican that are going to vote for Northam.”
On the Republican side, the best bet for the nomination in the June primary is Ed Gillespie, who ran a surprisingly close race for the US Senate in 2014, with 48.3% to incumbent US Sen. Mark Warner’s (D) 49.1%. Gillespie is a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and has strong ties with both state and national Republican activists. He has been endorsed by most of the Republicans in the General Assembly. In the recent presidential campaign, he kept his distance from Trump but was not a “Never-Trumper.”
Larry Sabato, Director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, says that “Given Gillespie’s endorsements, money raising ability and his close race last time, you would think he would get” the GOP nomination. But he adds, “If Donald Trump can win the nomination and election, you can’t rule anything out.”
Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, “has an avid following among those concerned with immigration,” says Sabato. Stewart was also
a strong Trump backer, although he was removed from the Trump campaign when he clashed publicly with RNC Chairman Reince Priebus.
A third Republican contender is state Sen. Frank Wagner from Virginia Beach, “a dark horse,” says Sabato. Wagner’s major asset is 24 years serving in the state’s legislature. In his announcement, last August, Wagner said he would focus on bringing jobs to the state’s Southwest and Southside regions, suggesting that Gillespie would focus on Northern Virginia, reported the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
A fourth contender, US Rep. Rob Wittman (R), announced he would run for governor a year ago, but last week, he withdrew from the contest. In an emailed statement published in The Virginian Pilot, Wittman said that he wanted “to be where I can do the most good for Virginia.” The Washington Post reports that he is seeking a subcommittee chairmanship in the next Congress. While he endorsed no one in the governor’s race, there is speculation that he will support Gillespie. In a statement, Gillespie called Wittman “a good friend and a good man.” In his withdrawal announcement, Wittman also said he “can’t predict” where he can best serve Virginia in the future. There is speculation that Wittman will challenge US Sen. Tim Kaine (D) in 2018.
A University of Mary Washington poll of Virginia adults, taken in September, showed voters had not focused strongly on the governor’s race. Gillespie had 19% for the GOP nomination, followed by 11% for Wagner, 8% for Wittman (now out of the race), and 6% for Stewart. Gillespie’s favorables were 16%, Northam’s were 6%. In the General Election, all of the candidates in the matchups were in the range of 35% to 40%.
In the General Election next November, “You can’t ignore the Trump factor,” says Sabato. “If his job approval is up, it will help Gillespie; if it’s down, it will help Northam.” Stay tuned.