Virginia's governor race: What to watch for

Virginia's governor race: What to watch for
© Greg Nash

The pitched battle for Virginia’s governorship between Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie (R) has evolved into a furious effort to turn out voters loyal to each candidate’s own political party, in a state where close elections come down to only a small handful of counties. 

Strategists in both camps said they expect a low-turnout affair, in which about 41 percent of the state’s electorate casts a ballot, putting a premium on base mobilization over voter persuasion just hours before the polls open — and turning a once-staid contest into a brutally personal slugfest. 

Northam’s campaign has spent the final weeks before Election Day tying Gillespie to President Trump, and Democratic outside groups have portrayed Gillespie supporters as white supremacists sympathetic to the white nationalists who rallied in Charlottesville.

Gillespie has accused Northam of voting to allow sanctuary cities — though no Virginia jurisdiction counts itself as a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants — and therefore exacerbating a rising crime wave fueled by the MS-13 gang. 

Both pitches are aimed squarely at firing up the two sides’ respective bases.

“We’re two one-party states,” said Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman from Northern Virginia. “This comes down to who shows up their base, which is why at the end of the campaign I’m having to choose between an MS-13 member and a Nazi.”

Observers in both parties are zeroing in on a handful of key precincts in bellwether counties and cities, crafting base appeals aimed only at turning out their core voters. 

In the last nine closely-fought statewide elections — the presidential contests in 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016; Senate contests in 2006 and 2014; and gubernatorial races in 2005, 2009 and 2013 — only two jurisdictions have picked the winning candidate every time: Prince William County, just south and west of the Washington Beltway, and tiny Radford City, on the I-81 corridor west of Roanoke.

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Six other jurisdictions have picked the winner in eight of those nine close elections: Albemarle County and Harrisonburg City, both near Charlottesville; Henrico County, in the Richmond suburbs; Northern Virginia’s Loudoun County; Northampton County, on the eastern shore; and Sussex County, south of Richmond.

Most of those swing counties have one of two factors in common: Some have a sizable African-American population, like Prince William, Henrico, Sussex and Northampton. Others have high percentages of young people and college students, like Radford, Harrisonburg and Albemarle. 

Those factors, experts on both sides said, illustrate why this year’s race has become a base election. If younger voters and African-Americans turn out in sufficient numbers to swing those counties and cities, Northam will win the governorship. If they stay home, and if Gillespie’s fans come out, the Republican will notch a late surprise.

Loudoun County is the lone exception, and tellingly so: It is the wealthiest county in America, one of the fastest-growing, and one of the best-educated; 41 percent of its residents have a college degree. Those voters gave Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGrassley blasts Democrats over unwillingness to probe Clinton GOP lawmakers cite new allegations of political bias in FBI Top intel Dem: Trump Jr. refused to answer questions about Trump Tower discussions with father MORE 56 percent of the vote in 2016, four points better than President Obama did in 2012. 

But the only time Loudoun County voted for the candidate who did not win one of those close races was in 2014, when Gillespie beat Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerSenate panel moves forward with bill to roll back Dodd-Frank Comey back in the spotlight after Flynn makes a deal Warner: Every week another shoe drops in Russia investigation MORE (D) there by fewer than 500 votes out of more than 90,000 cast.

Northern Virginia’s stunning population growth, fueled by economic booms in the Washington suburbs, has contributed heavily to the commonwealth’s new blue tint. Democrats have won every close election in recent years in which Northern Virginia cities and counties accounted for more than 32 percent of the statewide electorate.

But in off-year elections, voter turnout stalls in Northern Virginia, just like everywhere else. In the 2016 presidential election, 1.37 million votes came from Northern Virginia. In the 2013 gubernatorial race, those same counties and cities accounted for just 731,000 votes.

Thus, the party is working furiously to turn out voters closer to Washington. More than half of the money Democrats have spent on television ads in the campaign’s final weeks has been spent in the Washington media market, according to an analysis by the ad buying firm Advertising Analytics, an indication of how much Northam needs Northern Virginia voters to show up to the polls.

In an encouraging sign for Democrats, absentee ballots in Northern Virginia are being returned at a faster rate than they were four years ago. 

Republicans say they need their voters in the Roanoke Valley, along the border with West Virginia, and in Southwest and Southside Virginia to show up en masse. Turning those voters out to the polls in an off-year election can be as challenging as getting younger voters to cast a ballot is for Democrats.

To turn out those voters, Republicans have been spending more of their money in much smaller television markets. While Northam and Democrats are outspending Gillespie and Republicans in the Washington, Richmond and Norfolk markets, the GOP is spending more on television ads in the Roanoke, Charlottesville, Harrisonburg and Tri-Cities markets. 

The Gillespie team has even spent $105,000 in tiny Tazewell County, a media market that overlaps with West Virginia. The Northam side hasn’t spent a dime in that market in the last month. 

Veterans of Virginia’s political wars predicted Republican Gillespie will jump out to an early lead. GOP strongholds in places like Chesterfield County tend to report their results early, while Democratic bastions like Fairfax tend to count ballots more slowly.