In Virginia gubernatorial race, history points to Democratic win

In Virginia gubernatorial race, history points to Democratic win
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Predicting election outcomes is tricky business, usually best avoided. Voters have a way sometimes of defying the polls and pundits. Yet there’s no reason to avoid analyzing whether historic Virginia election dynamics point at this moment in a particular direction.

The fact is that key markers point to major advantages this year for the Democratic campaign of Ralph Northam and his ticket mates. Election history suggests that Republican opponent Ed Gillespie has a fighting chance as long as he recognizes and confronts these challenges, although some are beyond his control.

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The leading factor: Since 1977, with one exception, the incumbent president’s party loses the Virginia gubernatorial election the next year.     

Just as voters typically turn out many of the presidential party’s members of Congress in the midterms, the Virginia gubernatorial race has been an early indicator of this trend. The lone exception: 2013, when the GOP nominated its most unpopular candidate since the party first won the Governor’s Mansion in 1969.

The GOP took the blame for the October 2013 partial shut down of the federal government, hugely decried in swing vote rich Northern Virginia. Yet Terry McAuliffe still only barely won.

In 2017, the GOP incumbent — President Donald J. Trump — is very unpopular, with an approval rating around 37 percent.

Trump’s unpopularity is fueled in part by his unpredictability and that poses a particular challenge to Gillespie as he tries to both win over Trump enthusiasts and broaden his appeal among voters who dislike the president.

Gillespie has tried to shift the focus among voters to the Democratic governor. But the tack has proven a difficult sell given that Virginians are generally favorable toward Governor Terry McAuliffe right now.

Democrats have won the Virginia governorship six of the latest nine election cycles, beginning with the transformative election of Charles Robb who led a newly multi-racial Democratic Party that was also able to attract the votes of moderate upper-income suburban whites. Six out of nine races may not be a trend, but we can discern some notable patterns nonetheless.

First, Republicans only won when a Democrat occupied the White House: 1993 ( Clinton), 1997, (Clinton), 2009 (Obama).

Second, the GOP victories were driven in part either by economic anxiety fueling an anti-Washington mood (1993, 2009) or with a populist economic message (1997 especially, with the pledge to eliminate the unpopular local “car tax”).

Third, in each case there was some powerful wedge issue or issues fueling Republican base turnout.

Fourth, and very importantly but rarely mentioned, the GOP gubernatorial victories were all landslides attesting to their being what are called “walkovers” in horse racing. The GOP has yet to win in a normative political environment since Robb established the pro-education/racial tolerance/anti -tax campaign blueprint. Indeed, all three GOP winners mooted out the powerful education issue.

This time, Gillespie trails badly here.  

Republicans have not won a statewide race since the anti-Obama wave in 2009. The fastest growing segments of the state population have been reliably Democratic on Election Day.  

Furthermore, due to various factors, Gillespie doesn’t have a single Virginia Republican statewide winner he can use as a model to represent except former U.S. senator John Warner who last won in 2002!  He’s got to bring former president George W. Bush to a fund-raiser (he won VA in 2004). That’s telling.

Gillespie doesn’t have a new GOP wedge issue, having politically mishandled the Confederate Statue controversy after Northam provided an opening.  He is trying to use sanctuary cities as a surrogate for the immigration issue. But Virginia doesn’t have sanctuary cities.

With Trump now tweeting anti-Northam absurdities, with no stirring wedge or winning education issue, with no resource advantage, with the polls showing voters generally okay with McAuliffe’s record, and with no contemporary Virginia Republicans as role models, the historical markers are all lined up against Gillespie.

Ralph Northam may not be Mr. Excitement, but his standing as a military doctor is under appreciated. He’s a solid guy with no real negatives representing the usual winning party in an environment hostile to a Republican president.  He is, in brief, a difficult candidate to run against in 2017.

Gillespie is a solid candidate who in 2014 almost beat a very popular incumbent U.S. senator riding an anti-Obama tide. If Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillary Clinton: FBI investigation into Kavanaugh could be done quickly Hillary Clinton urges Americans to 'check and reject' Trump's 'authoritarian tendencies' by voting in midterms EXCLUSIVE: Trump says exposing ‘corrupt’ FBI probe could be ‘crowning achievement’ of presidency MORE sat right now in the Oval Office, he probably wins. But she lost.

The latest nine statewide elections have produced six sweeps. If anyone on Gillespie’s ticket wins, they will have beaten history’s grim reaper. Right now, history is clear. Unless the political Gods deliver a different campaign dynamic quickly, it’s likely to be the seventh sweep in the latest 10 gubernatorial elections next month.

Paul Goldman is former chair of the Democratic Party of Virginia. Mark J. Rozell is dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.