WASHINGTON — As Virginia’s races for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and house of delegates pick up two months from Election Day, a focus on getting independent voters to the polls could prove to be a key to victory.
“Virginia politicians want to talk about Virginia issues. The challenge in 2017 is whether they are able to do so,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington.
“Virginia is the first true measure of the effectiveness of the Trump coalition a year after the presidential election,” he said. “It’s very different as a statewide election from the congressional district elections that have been held so far.”
Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, the Democratic nominee for governor, has made opposition to President Donald Trump a key part of his campaign. And Republican nominee Ed Gillespie hired some Trump supporters and backed some of the administration’s stances on immigration and Confederate statues after Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart nearly beat Gillespie in the primary.
“The challenge for both candidates is to bring some Virginia issue to bear that’s going to draw a lot of attention to the campaigns, and that’s going to be a challenge in the age of Trump,” Farnsworth said, given the massive national attention and money pouring into the race.
Key local issues typically include transportation, education or the economy, which the candidates have addressed in policy statements.
“It is important for Northam and for Gillespie to figure out ways to reach those voters who aren’t clearly Democratic or aren’t clearly Republican in their loyalties, and those voters are often motivated by issues of state import,” Farnsworth said.
“Turnout will probably be higher this year than four years ago because Trump is such a polarizing figure. You have people really, really committed to the Trump presidency and you have people really opposed to it,” Farnsworth said.
Four years ago, turnout was 43 percent for the governor’s race won by Democrat Terry McAuliffe, compared with 71 percent turnout in the 2012 presidential contest. Those turnout numbers are relatively close to what has been the norm for Virginia election cycles over the last 20 years.
Because of the Trump effect, Farnsworth expects to see more straight party-line voting, which could make things difficult for some delegate candidates.
The push to be completely for or completely against the president does not necessarily mean the legislature that can already be polarized at times will become more extreme.
“One of the advantages that lawmakers have is that people do tend to pay less attention to governance than they do to elections, and so for those individuals who might be more centrist than their party label would indicate, there is an opportunity to move a little bit if the caucus is willing to let them do it,” Farnsworth said.
Candidates for statewide office on the ballot alongside all 100 house of delegates seats are:
- Republican Ed Gillespie
- Libertarian Cliff Hyra
- Democrat Ralph Northam
- Republican John Adams
- Democrat Mark Herring
- Democrat Justin Fairfax
- Republican Jill Holtzman Vogel
Voters in 77 of the 100 house of delegates districts will see more than one name on the ballot. Thirty-three legislators are running unopposed.
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