Lessons from Virginia’s primary as gubernatorial race heats up

WASHINGTON — For those who think the end of Virginia’s primary election season marks a break in politics for a while, think again.

The Virginia and New Jersey governor’s races are the biggest items on the 2017 political calendar putting the contests squarely in the national spotlight.

“I have to think that the campaign started on Wednesday,” said Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

While many voters will tune out during the summer, the campaigns for gubernatorial candidates Ed Gillespie and Ralph Northam will be very active.

But what are the lessons of the primary?

“Over 540,000 people voted in the Democratic primary for governor, which is a nonpresidential primary record in the state of Virginia. That fits into the building narrative that Democrats around the country are very engaged at the moment,” Skelley said.

In the Republican primary, Gillespie beat Corey Stewart, an ardent supporter of President Donald Trump, by more than one percentage point.

“It is not a great sign for Gillespie that he only narrowly won. It speaks to the fact that his appeal as a candidate to the Republican base … may be in some ways a little limited.”

However President Donald Trump’s approval rating — now at 40 percent — could hurt Republican candidates’ chances especially if the president’s support drops lower, Skelley said.

On the Democratic side, Skelley said Ralph Northam’s win over Tom Perriello shouldn’t be a surprise, despite the later’s high national profile and big-name national endorsements like Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

“Importantly for Northam, he had the backing of, basically, every elected Democrat in the state,” said Skelley.

He also said that Northam may have benefited from Virginia’s open primary — perhaps winning a lot of votes from what he calls “middle-of-the-road, white-collar voters who decided to vote in the Democratic primary and not the Republican primary. That probably hurt Ed Gillespie.”

That said, Skelley warns: Don’t count out the former RNC chairman and the Republican campaign effort.

“Virginia is still a pretty competitive state, one way or the other. Gillespie is going to have a lot of support. He’s going to raise a lot of money.”

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