5 takeaways from the Virginia primaries

5 takeaways from the Virginia primaries
© Getty Images - Greg Nash

Democrats’ hotly anticipated contested primary for Virginia governor was supposed to be the race to watch when Virginians went to the polls Tuesday, but the surprise of the night was the unexpectedly close race for the GOP nomination.

Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam cruised to the Democratic nomination with a double-digit victory over former Rep. Tom Perriello, who gained national prominence for fiery rhetoric against President Trump and an endorsement from Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders on difference with Warren: she's a capitalist 'I'm not' Sunday Show Preview: Trump's allies and administration defend decision on Syria Klobuchar takes shots at health and education plans supported by Sanders and Warren MORE (I-Vt.).


Instead, the GOP primary quickly stole the spotlight, with front-runner Ed Gillespie barely eking out a win over Corey Stewart, an outspoken Trump backer who has defended Confederate symbols.

Here are five takeaways from Tuesday’s primaries in the race to succeed Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D):


Enthusiasm is on Democrats’ side

Democrats argue that voter enthusiasm is on their side in the early months of Trump’s administration, touting their surprisingly competitive, although ultimately unsuccessful, special election performances in GOP strongholds.

The party can now point to Virginia’s gubernatorial primaries as evidence that the enthusiasm gap is real, at least in Virginia.

A total of 542,410 Virginia Democrats voted in their party’s primary, compared to 365,559 votes cast in the Republican primary. And Democrats saw a huge bump in their primary vote totals compared to 2009 — Virginia’s last contested Democratic gubernatorial primary — when fewer than 320,000 voted.

Democrats made up nearly 60 percent of Tuesday’s primary turnout, according to Decision Desk. That’s a significant drop-off from Virginia’s 2016 presidential primary, when Republicans made up 57 percent of the turnout.

The turnout gap serves as good news for Democrats hoping to keep Republicans out of the governor’s mansion.

Democrats will have a good chance of holding on to the governorship if they can keep up those turnout levels while Republican voters sit on the sidelines.

It will be crucial for Democrats to turn out voters in Northern Virginia as well as black voters in the southeastern part of the state around Richmond. Strong anti-Trump headwinds can motivate their base to go to the polls.


Sanders-aligned candidate falls short — again

Sanders became an icon in the Democratic Party after his insurgent presidential bid, but candidates aligned with the progressive stalwart have so far had little luck electorally.

Sanders has had little to show for his endorsements this cycle — special election candidates in Montana and Kansas came close, but ultimately lost. Democrats aligned with the Vermont senator have failed to make gains even in deep blue states like California.

Sanders endorsed Perriello and campaigned with him at George Mason University. While he lost by a wide margin, Perriello did see major support in precincts with lots of college students, a bloc of voters that generally flocked to Sanders in 2016.

The primary had frequently been described as a proxy war between the establishment and progressive wings of the party, with Northam receiving an endorsement from McAuliffe, a close ally to Bill and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonRonan Farrow exposes how the media protect the powerful Kamala Harris to Trump Jr.: 'You wouldn't know a joke if one raised you' Comey says he has a 'fantasy' about deleting his Twitter account after end of Trump term MORE. But since the Democrats largely overlapped on policy, many characterized the race instead as a difference in their tone and style: Northam as a pragmatist and Perriello as an idealist.

After Perriello’s defeat, Perriello communications director Ian Sams tweeted that Northam is the most progressive nominee for Virginia governor in recent history, crediting the primary and Perriello’s candidacy for pulling the party to the left.

Both candidates touted their progressive chops during the primary, with Northam airing an ad in the last week that specifically highlighted endorsements from progressive groups.


The Washington Post endorsement continues to hold sway with Democrats

Polls leading up to Tuesday’s primary reflected a neck-and-neck race, with some polls showing Perriello with an edge.

But The Washington Post editorial board’s endorsement of Northam appeared to blunt some of Perriello’s momentum. The endorsement cited Northam’s long ties to state politics, as well as his temperament, as reasons to back him over the former congressman.

Perriello’s internal polls reportedly found that his numbers sank by 12 points following the Post’s endorsement, according to multiple reports.

The Post’s endorsements appear to still have influence in Virginia’s Democratic primaries. In 2009, the newspaper endorsed Creigh Deeds over McAuliffe and another Democrat. Deeds ultimately won the primary with a majority of the vote, after heavily emphasizing the endorsement in the race’s final weeks.

But in the GOP primary, the Post endorsed state Sen. Frank Wagner, who lagged far behind in third place.


GOP is still divided between Trump and the establishment

Republicans are still struggling with the same question as in 2016: Should they keep Trump at arm’s length, or embrace him?

Gillespie kept his distance from Trump, in what looked like a smart general election strategy in a swing state that is rapidly turning blue after Clinton carried Virginia in 2016 by a larger margin than former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaWhy calls for impeachment have become commonplace Meet Trump's most trusted pollsters Reducing NSC staff places Trump on right side of history MORE. Polls showed the former Republican National Committee chairman running away with the nomination.

Stewart, on the other hand, has been a fierce supporter of Trump. He was fired as co-chairman of Trump’s Virginia campaign after leading a protest outside of RNC headquarters calling on the GOP establishment to support Trump.

Stewart frequently challenged Gillespie over his lack of support for the president, giving him the Trump-style moniker “Establishment Ed.”

Gillespie’s razor-thin margin of victory shows that Republicans still can’t abandon Trump in a primary, even in a swing state. But Gillespie’s strategy will likely serve him better in a general election, when he has to appeal to more than just his base.

While Democrats planned a post-primary unity event, Stewart has already made it clear that he won’t support Gillespie — an issue that could drive a wedge between the Republican nominee and the Trump faithful.


GOP averts potential general election disaster

Most Republicans believe that Gillespie’s victory kept alive the GOP’s general election hopes, since Stewart polls poorly with moderate voters.

Stewart passionately rallied against removing Confederate statues from public land across the state, traveling to cities such as Charlottesville to protest local government decisions about the statues and regularly tweeting about Confederate pride. As a county official in Northern Virginia, Stewart has also tried to institute Trump-style crackdowns on illegal immigration.

Later, Stewart faced criticism for remaining silent after white nationalist Richard Spencer led his own Charlottesville protest calling for the city to keep a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

Stewart drew the ire of the state Republican Party chair for referring to Gillespie as a “cuckservative,” a play on a favorite slur used by the white supremacist “alt-right” movement.

That meant Stewart could have been a liability for Republicans in the general election, especially with the moderate voters whom the GOP needs to woo in a general election.

Gillespie has a far more favorable reputation in GOP circles. He ran a surprisingly strong Senate bid in 2014, ultimately losing by less than a point.

While Gillespie’s narrow primary win Tuesday doesn’t bode well for party unity, his victory could keep Republican gubernatorial hopes alive.

Ben Kamisar contributed.