Heading into Election Day, most experts predicted a decisive victory in the GOP primary for Ed Gillespie, a former RNC chairman. They also expected a too-close-to-call match between Ralph Northam and Tom Perriello in the Democrat corner.
Surprisingly, Lt. Gov. Northam won handily. Also surprising – Gillespie barely won his respective race after a nail-biter that lasted late into the night.
Three candidates ran in the GOP gubernatorial primary. Ed Gillespie, Corey Stewart and Frank Wagner. Stewart serves as chairman of the County Board of Supervisors of Prince William County and Wagner is a member of the Virginia state Senate. After the dust settled, Gillespie emerged victoriouswith almost 44 percent of the vote. Stewart was not far behind with 42.5 percent. As you can see from the county-by-county map, Stewart did well in Virginia’s rural areas, but could not overcome Gillespie’s performance in the voter-rich counties surrounding Richmond, Roanoke and D.C.
Lt. Gov. Northam performed very well against former Rep. Tom Perriello in the Democratic primary. Despite liberal heart throbs like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren endorsing his opponent, Northam ended the night with almost 56 percent of the vote – beating Perriello by double digits.
There are several main takeaways from these election results.
The “establishment” claimed victory on both sides Tuesday night. Gillespie, a former RNC chairman and counselor to President Bush, enjoyed strong fundraising numbers and a well-oiled campaign operation by seasoned politicos. Many felt his even tempered approach when stumping on the campaign trail would jive better in a general election in a purple state.
Gov. McAuliffe and U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine all endorsed Lt. Gov. Northam ahead of the Democratic primary. He also had the backing of almost every single Democratic member of the Virginia legislature.
Trump was a huge factor in this race. Stewart served as the Virginia chair of Trump’s presidential campaign. Throughout his own race, Stewart touted his closeness to the Republican president and purposefully used strong rhetoric to gain media exposure. Stewart even took a note from Trump’s nickname playbook and dubbed Gillespie: “Establishment Ed.” It was this insurgent/populist strategy that gave him shockingly strong turnout in Virginia’s rural districts. Gillespie was very hesitant to associate himself with Trump. He appeared more concerned with positioning himself for a general election in a state where the president does not enjoy high approval numbers.
Whether Virgnia’s GOP insiders like it or not, Republican primary voters are still vehemently pro-Trump.
On the other ticket, Perriello used the gubernatorial election as a referendum on Donald Trump. He criticized the president at every campaign event and speaking engagement (Northam was able to undercut this strategy by out anti-Trumping him). While Virginia Democrats may have not preferred him, Perriello enjoyed backing from many progressives on the national stage.
Democrat turnout was extremely high. This is something the Virginia GOP needs to focus on now that we are moving on to the general election. Much like they are nationally, Democrats in Virginia are energized. The Dem turnout for this primary was 170 percent higher than the last gubernatorial primary in 2009. If, theoretically, Virginia was under the jungle primary system, we would be looking at a general election between Democrat Perriello and Democrat Northam.
Gillespie begins the general election as the underdog. Early polling shows him behind Northam by double digits.
While he may be down in the polls now, let’s not forget how well Gillespie performed in his 2014 senate bid. He lost, sure, but no one even had his campaign on their radar before Election Day. Gillespie shocked the country when he nearly ousted incumbent Sen. Mark Warner by less than onepercentage point.