From 1964 to 2004 the state of Virginia was a bastion of conservatism. The state went for George Bush in 2000 despite Al Gore winning the popular vote. But since 2008, the state has taken a hard left turn and short of 2009 the GOP has not won a in a single statewide contest since.
Last year, Hillary Clinton won the state by five points due to the power of NoVA. Donald Trump is below 40 percent in national approval and the state’s recent leftward lean one would leads one to assume this the governor’s race is the Democrats to lose. It is. But, if one were to assume Democrats are running away with the contest they would be wrong.
Democrats have traditionally suffered from a turnout drop-off in non-midterm or Presidential election years. Under Trump, surprisingly, it has been Republicans who have had the problem worse. But, in Virginia, Democrats could be seeing their base either faltering in polls or Republicans and Independents rallying to a Republican candidate even in the era of Trump.
Numerous polls have shown the contest between Republican Ed Gillespie and Lt. Governor Ralph Northam a dead heat. One would expect if next year is shaping up to a Democratic wave that Virginia would show it. Instead, it seems down-ballot Republicans are staying loyal to their roots, as many did in districts that voted for Clinton but kept their Republican congressperson last year.
For many Democrats the bigger prize in Virginia next month is not the gubernatorial race but rather the legislative contests playing out throughout the state. Democrats want to 1) cut into the massive GOP majority in the House (the State Senate is not up) and 2) use the seats they are targeting as gauge for the national mood of the country. Next year, the real battle for control of states for the next decade will be fought at the local level in state level contests and not Congress.
That is what should concern Democrats. Short of a turnout disaster it is likely Lt. Governor Ralph Northam will win his race against Gillespie. But, an underwhelming performance in a Democratic leaning state could be a precursor to next year and indicate that while Republicans and Independents might not like Trump that much they are not willing to ditch their down-ballot allegiances. In turn, it could signal to Democrats they face the same hurdle they have faced in non-Presidential elections for a decade now. The dreaded turnout woes.