State Watch

Dems face close polls in must-win Virginia

Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) is bearing the collective hopes and fears of an anxious Democratic Party in the race to replace term-limited Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), a race that has become the most significant contest on the November ballot.

But public and private polling shows Northam barely ahead of former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, despite a raft of structural advantages that should put wind in the Democrats' sails.

That has some party operatives worried that, a month before Election Day, the party could lose one more governor's mansion.

"I think every Democratic operative has PTSD, so we all think we're going to lose everything because Hillary [Clinton] didn't win," said one Virginia-based Democrat.

Public surveys show Northam has at least a small edge - Gillespie has not led a public poll since March, and Northam has led all but two of the 13 polls conducted since the June 13 primary; the other two showed a tied race.

Nervous Democrats got a breather late Wednesday, when The Washington Post published a poll showing Northam leading Gillespie by a massive 53 percent to 40 percent margin. Libertarian Cliff Hyra takes 4 percent in the new survey, though the bulk of voters say they have not yet tuned into the race.

Two other figures stand out from those surveys, both of which should aid Northam. McAuliffe's job approval rating is strong, resting somewhere in the mid-50s. And President Trump's approval rating, in a state he lost by 5 percentage points in 2016, is deeply underwater.

Northam also has a fundraising advantage. At the end of August, Northam had raised $15.6 million and had $5.6 million left in the bank. Gillespie has pulled in $10.4 million, with $2.6 million cash on hand.

"The favorable environment is keeping the Democrat slightly ahead, but given the tendency in Virginia to vote against the sitting presidential party in gubernatorial elections and Trump's poor approval rating, Northam should probably be ahead by a little more," said Geoffrey Skelley, who keeps tabs on the state's politics at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

Internal Republican polling has the candidates tied. Gillespie's backers say he has shown himself to be the superior candidate, even in the face of attacks on his career as a Washington lobbyist.

"Ed has the sunny disposition and leadership capacity of a Ronald Reagan," said Fred Malek, a longtime friend of Gillespie's who is one of the GOP's top fundraisers. "He's got the steadiness of a Mike Pence. He's got the poise of a Nikki Haley. He's got the balls of a Scott Walker."

Gillespie started airing television ads early, beginning in the first week of August, which helped him close Northam's initial advantage. Northam did not begin running advertising until Aug. 21.

And Virginia law, which allows outside groups to coordinate with campaigns more than virtually any other state, may help Gillespie erase Northam's fundraising edge with the snap of a finger. The Republican Governors Association, whose members includes some governors who owe their jobs to Gillespie, has spent $4 million on his behalf so far. The group spent $9 million on behalf of 2013 nominee Ken Cuccinelli, and insiders expect the RGA to at least match that before Election Day next month.

While gubernatorial contests are normally driven by state-centric concerns like traffic congestion or education, the race in Virginia has been dominated by outside events.

Both Northam and Gillespie responded to the debate over Confederate statues in the Commonwealth after the violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville this summer. Northam wants to remove some memorials to Confederate icons; Gillespie wants to leave them alone, a stand polls show is more popular with voters.

The renewed focus on gun violence sparked by the mass shooting in Las Vegas will further change the shape of the race. Northam is likely to make an issue of the National Rifle Association's support of Gillespie, while the NRA itself plans to run ads on Gillespie's behalf.

"As fate has it, gun control is right back first and foremost in people's minds," said Jim Moran, the former Democratic congressman from Alexandria who backs Northam. "The big vote is going to come out of Northern Virginia, Charlottesville and the Hampton Roads area, and those folks, including Republicans and independents in those urban areas, care about gun control."

Both candidates have also been influenced by the difficult primaries they survived to advance to the general election.

Northam, a cautious politician by nature, was forced to take positions farther to his left than he might have liked in the face of a challenge from populist former Rep. Tom Perriello. Gillespie has had to stake out positions farther to the right to coalesce Republicans after winning a surprisingly narrow primary over conservative Prince William County Supervisor Corey Stewart.

Trump has loomed as an imposing presence for both candidates, too. Northam called Trump a "narcissistic maniac" in a campaign ad in May. In a new ad geared toward moderate voters who want their leaders to work together, Northam said he would work with the president.

Republicans acknowledge that Trump's dismal job approval ratings - 40 percent in a recent Monmouth poll, 36 percent in a Roanoke College survey - are a drag on Gillespie. Gillespie has assiduously avoided Trump, but he has picked up one of the president's talking points, warning of the danger posed by criminal gangs like MS-13 in paid advertising.

The focus on MS-13 "suggests that his campaign sees the issues of sanctuary cities and immigration as other means of getting the GOP base out to vote," Skelley said.

After losing the presidency in November, Democrats have also lost a handful of close races for open House seats in conservative-leaning districts. Now, hungry for a win, Virginia has become an essential contest for the party, and the most significant fight voters will decide in November.

Virginia history is on Northam's side too: Only once in recent history has the party that wins the White House also won Virginia's governor's mansion the following year, when McAuliffe won it in 2013.

But those factors belie a state that, while trending blue, is still firmly in the swing category. Democrats hope it goes their way this year, but after Trump's surprising, against-the-odds win, few are overly optimistic.

"We're all in a place where we think Northam should be up by more. It's a trending blue state and Trump is a dumpster fire, so Northam should have put it away," the Democratic strategist said. "And the reality is you just can't do that in an off-year in Virginia."

--This report was updated at 7:03 a.m.

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