Democrats and Republicans were on edge Tuesday as polls closed in the Virginia governor’s race — a contentious showdown that played out under the shadow of President Donald Trump and which was seen as a potential early bellwether for the 2018 midterms.
The chippy contest between Democratic Lt. Gov Ralph Northam — who is narrowly favored — and former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie ended with the Democrat holding an uncomfortably slim advantage in the polling averages. A series of late-campaign controversies hitting Northam had Republicans optimistic that Gillespie could close the gap and pull off an upset. But Democrats have long expected anti-Trump backlash to fuel unusually high turnout and boost Northam, and the party looked to steady jangled nerves early on Tuesday with scattered reports of high voting figures in Democratic strongholds.
Democrats have the upper hand in the night’s other gubernatorial contest, the race to replace unpopular Republican Gov. Chris Christie in New Jersey. Democrat Phil Murphy, a former U.S. ambassador to Germany, has held consistent double-digit polling leads over Christie’s lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno.
Polls closed in Virginia at 7 p.m. They will close at 8 p.m. in New Jersey.
The pair of off-year governor’s races is traditionally read as a bellwether for the next year’s midterm elections, but this year the results — particularly in Virginia — are also likely to be read as referenda on the state of each party’s national wellbeing in the age of Trump.
Republicans have long viewed the Virginia race as an uphill battle in a difficult political environment. Virginia’s demographics have trended toward Democrats, with Trump losing the state to Hillary Clinton in 2016 and still unpopular there, while outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe remains largely popular in the state.
But Democrats have also eyed the race nervously, as an opportunity to both demonstrate political momentum and help the party dig out from a historic low in terms of governorships. Democrats hold just 15 now compared to Republicans’ 34 (Alaska Gov. Bill Walker is an independent), so party officials have for months seen flipping the New Jersey seat and retaining Virginia’s as top priorities.
Democrats tried for months to tie Gillespie to Trump in Virginia, where the president lost by 5 points in 2016. But Gillespie sought to strike a balance between engaging moderates with talk of jobs and taxes and firing up his base by running ads on illegal immigration and sanctuary cities — which don’t exist in Virginia — and cultural touchstones like Confederate monuments and NFL anthem protests. Gillespie did not initially home in on those subjects, but they became a bigger part of his campaign after he nearly lost the June Republican primary to Trump’s former Virginia campaign chairman.
“The election has destroyed the myth of the moderate Republican — there just isn’t, there was no division between Trumpism and Gillespie as the standard-bearer in the state,” said former Rep. Tom Perriello, the Democrat who lost to Northam in the primary but has since become a top surrogate for him on the campaign trail.
Perriello said the state GOP’s rightward tack “reflects a couple of things. First is, obviously, the tremendous pressure from the base to lean into this extremely divisive politics, but also the delegitimization of the Republicans’ economic message, [wherein] the corporate economic agenda of Ed Gillespie has no constituency. And that leaves you, pretty much, with divisive politics.”
Democratic turnout in Virginia’s primary skyrocketed from previous years’ levels, but some party leaders were concerned heading into Tuesday about enthusiasm levels for Northam, who has called Trump a “narcissistic maniac” but also said he’d be willing to work with him on some issues. Party leaders including former President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have swooped into the state to back Northam in the final month.
“The initial goal was for Democrats to nationalize the race and make it about the president, our initial goal was to localize the race and make it about Virginia,” said Virginia Republican Party chairman John Whitbeck. “If we win, it will say that a mainstream conservative like Ed Gillespie can win in an era of uncertainty. What it says about the Democrats is they have a lot of soul-searching to do: I don’t think they know what their message is, their agenda is.”
“They’re in the wilderness like we were in 2008,” he said, referring to Republicans’ struggles after Barack Obama’s presidential victory — though Republican Bob McDonnell won the next year’s gubernatorial race in Virginia.
Though Trump has loomed over the race, Gillespie did not actually appear with him in Virginia — the first time in years a sitting president has not crossed the Potomac River to campaign in the governor’s race. Trump has tweeted his support — “Ralph Northam will allow crime to be rampant in Virginia. He’s weak on crime, weak on our GREAT VETS, Anti-Second Amendment……..and has been horrible on Virginia economy” was the message on Tuesday — but instead, Gillespie appeared multiple times with Vice President Mike Pence, who is more popular among conservatives and perceived as less likely to fire up Democrats who can’t stand the president.
In New Jersey, Murphy is heavily favored in large part because of the unpopularity of Christie. Guadagno, his deputy, has tried tacking away from Christie, but the former presidential candidate’s abysmal 14 percent approval rating — according to a late October Suffolk poll — has proven to be a serious drag on his hoped-for successor.
While Guadagno has tried tarnishing Murphy’s image by painting him as soft on illegal immigration in ads, Murphy — a former Goldman Sachs executive and Democratic National Committee finance chairman — has relied heavily on support from local and national-level Democrats to pad his comfortable margin.
In Virginia, Democrats are also aiming to peel back the GOP advantage in the state legislature. The party hopes that a Northam win, combined with continued down-ballot gains, will put Democrats in position to exert more influence over the next round of political map-drawing in Virginia at the end of this decade.
Other races grabbing attention on Tuesday include the New York City mayoral contest, where incumbent Democrat Bill de Blasio is expected to coast to a second term, and battleground mayoral contests in both Manchester, N.H. and St. Petersburg, Fla. — both of which have gotten attention from figures in both national parties, including Democrats hoping to run for president in 2020. Large cities including Atlanta and Charlotte are also voting for mayor on Tuesday, and a state Senate race in suburban Seattle could hand Democrats total control of Washington State’s government.
Utah’s heavily Republican 3rd Congressional District is also voting for a replacement for resigned Rep. Jason Chaffetz, while Maine voters are considering a ballot referendum to expand Medicaid.
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