Virginia governor election: Voters cast ballots in biggest referendum on Trump and the Democrats so far

The results of the contest could also have a strong bearing on next year’s midterm elections 

Alexandra Wilts
Washington DC
Tuesday 07 November 2017 21:56 GMT
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Surrounded by journalists, Republican candidate for Virginia governor Ed Gillespie casts his vote in the gymnasium at Washington Mill Elementary School in Alexandria, Virginia (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Surrounded by journalists, Republican candidate for Virginia governor Ed Gillespie casts his vote in the gymnasium at Washington Mill Elementary School in Alexandria, Virginia (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

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A year after Donald Trump upset Democrats, Virginians will head to the polls to pick a new governor, providing perhaps one of the best indicators of how having Mr Trump in the White House has affected voters.

The results of the contest could also have a strong bearing on next year’s midterm elections.

If the Democratic candidate, Ralph Northam, wins the race, the party will be able to say it successfully ran an anti-Trump campaign on a statewide level – and is likely to re-employ that strategy again and again during 2018’s key congressional and gubernatorial races.

But if the Republican nominee, Ed Gillespie, is the victor – Democrats will likely have to go back to the drawing board and figure out how to win in the age of Trump, pundits say.

“I sponsored this ad because I’ve stood up to Donald Trump on all of it,” Mr Northam says in a political advertisement. “Ed Gillespie refuses to stand up to him at all.”

Mr Northam only holds a narrow advantage over Mr Gillespie in the polls.

“Virginia is an early warning system and a testing ground for what we're going to see play out in the next midterms,” Jesse Ferguson, a former top aide on Hillary Clinton's campaign, told the Washington Post.

While Mr Gillespie has mostly kept his distance from Mr Trump, the former national party chairman has imitated elements of the president’s hard-line statements. For example, he has used provocative adverts to suggest that Mr Northam, currently the commonwealth’s lieutenant governor, has not been tough enough on illegal immigration.

On Tuesday, Mr Trump, who is in Asia, offered his support for Mr Gillespie. He wrote on Twitter that “MS-13 and crime will be gone” if the commonwealth elects the Republican, referring to a violent gang with roots in Central America. “Ralph Northam will allow crime to be rampant in Virginia,” the president asserted.

Republicans have managed to gain control of more than 60 per cent of statehouses and governorships across the US.

In Virginia, the party currently holds a majority in both the House of Delegates and the Senate, while the governor’s mansion is occupied by a Democrat, Terry McAuliffe.

If Democrats are able to maintain control over the governorship, they may be able to demonstrate that Mr Trump’s policies don’t help win elections in swing states like Virginia. The commonwealth went to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in last year’s presidential race.

Marc Hetherington, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, told the Independent that if Democrats lose despite Mr Trump's unpopularity, “it will be a terrible blow to them”.

“If they win, they can point to Trump's unpopularity as a reason for their success,” he added.

Some also assert that if Democrats want to gain ground in Virginia over the next 10 years, they must win the race on Tuesday. Whoever gets elected will have tremendous power of the future of their respective political party, as they will be able to approve or veto new state and congressional electoral maps in 2021.

Election results are expected to show that Virginia’s politics are becoming sharply bifurcated by region. The so-called “urban crescent,” which stretches from the suburbs of Washington, DC down to greater Richmond and east toward the Chesapeake Bay, is booming with new Democratic residents.

Meanwhile, the western half of the state – as well as the southern portion bordering North Carolina – has seen little population growth and is becoming even more Republican.

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