by Thomas Valentine
After a primary on Tuesday that defied expectations, Virginia has its candidates for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General in 2017.
Virginia is one of two states that holds elections every year (the other is New Jersey), and this year will have important consequences. As we detailed in March, political analysts will be watching Virginia very closely this year as a barometer for how voters are feeling about the Trump administration and as a bellwether for the 2018 midterm elections.
Virginia was reliably red for decades but began shifting to a purple state in the 2000s. Barack Obama won the state in 2008 and 2012. Republicans won a landslide victory in the 2009 elections for governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general as a repudiation of Obama’s first year in office. But they have lost all 7 statewide elections since then.
Geographically, most of the state is reliably Republican, but the growth of the liberal Washington, D.C., suburbs in Northern Virginia has tilted the balance. Though many blue states went red in 2016, Virginia went for Hillary Clinton by a margin of 49-44.
Republican nominee: Ed Gillespie
Former Counselor to President George W. Bush, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, and 2014 nominee for U.S. Senate in Virginia.
Democrat nominee: Ralph Northam
Current Lieutenant Governor, former state senator, and pediatrician.
Both Gillespie and Northam began running for their respective nominations in 2015, both had advantages in name recognition and fundraising, and both were expected to cruise to the nomination. But a late entry into the Democratic race by former Congressman Tom Perriello, and a surprisingly strong challenge on the Republican side by Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart, gave both men a run for their money.
Gillespie is a solid conservative. Despite winning by just 1.2 percent, Gillespie has emerged from the primary unscathed — he ran a clean, professional campaign and had a wide appeal among all different types of Republicans: social conservatives, moderates, libertarians, and others. But Stewart’s scorched-earth campaign has turned many of Stewart’s core supporters against Gillespie. Stewart has thus far refused to endorse Gillespie — on primary night, Stewart said, “There’s one word you’ll never hear from me, and that’s ‘unity.’”
Northam was constantly challenged by Perriello on whether he was liberal enough. Northam used to have a moderate image, but he made clear over the course of the primary that he had become a far-left liberal and has pledged to lead The Resistance™. Despite being a pediatrician by trade, Northam often comes across as angry, and he made a series of lowbrow attacks on the religion of his 2013 Republican opponent for lieutenant governor. His demeanor contrasts sharply with Gillespie’s friendly personality.
There are two questions that will play out over the course of the general election campaign: Will Northam shift back to the center, or will he continue playing the part of fierce anti-Trump resistor? And will enough of Stewart’s supporters rally around Gillespie?
Gillespie came within 1 point of knocking off a popular Democrat senator in 2014. He has shown that he is a great campaigner and a top-notch candidate. If he can win back some votes for the GOP in the Northern Virginia suburbs, he’ll be in good shape. But the race will be tight, for sure.
Republican nominee: Jill Vogel
Attorney and state senator.
Democrat nominee: Justin Fairfax
Former federal prosecutor.
This is a race between two fresh faces: Vogel, 46, who would be the first female lieutenant governor of Virginia, and Fairfax, who is 38 and has an impressive personal story.
Lieutenant governor has historically been a largely ceremonial office that serves as a stepping stone to the office of governor. But the LG is the tie-breaking vote in the state Senate, which is closely divided between 21 Republicans and 19 Democrats. So this will be a critical race.
Their fortunes will probably be mostly tied to their respective gubernatorial candidates at the top of the ticket, but both candidates are charming and have strong appeal. Vogel is experienced and smart, and she will certainly be a strong candidate.
Republican nominee: John Adams
Retired U.S. Navy officer and former federal prosecutor.
Democrat nominee: Mark Herring
Mark Herring has shown nothing but contempt for Virginia’s laws. His first act in office was to attack Virginia’s marriage law in court, a flagrantly unethical act that should have gotten him penalized. He unilaterally revoked Virginia’s concealed carry reciprocity agreements with other states and has assisted Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s illegal granting of voting rights to felons.
John Adams — yes, he is related to the John Adams — is a very impressive candidate who has committed to respecting the rule of law. He has offered a clear message about restoring dignity to the office of Attorney General which Herring has so badly sullied.
Adams needs to shout this message from the rooftops and explain the importance of having an attorney general who abides by the law. If he does that — and if Virginians care enough to listen — Herring should be frightened.
Photo credit: Virginia Guard Public Affairs/Gage Skidmore