By Jim Ellis
June 19, 2017 — As has been discussed since the Virginia gubernatorial primary votes were counted last Tuesday, the election’s end result was much different for both parties than expected even though the favored candidates won. For Republican nominee Ed Gillespie, the primary vote distribution could have only been worse if he had lost.
At week’s end, GOP second-place finisher Corey Stewart announced that he would not challenge the vote totals –- it is unlikely that a recount would have produced enough to overcome his 4,320 statewide vote deficit -– but he stopped short of formally endorsing the new party nominee; though Stewart did indicate that he would vote for Gillespie.
The breadth of his former opponent’s comments indicates that Gillespie has quite a gap to fill in order to attract the Stewart vote base for the general election. These are people Gillespie must have if he is to seriously compete with Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, who won the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in surprisingly easy fashion.
“The real question is, will [Gillespie] support my supporters? Unless he stands up and takes clear positions on defending our heritage and our history, supporting the president, cracking down on illegal immigration, those who supported me are not going to go with him. This isn’t old-style politics anymore. I just can’t tell 155,000 folks to go ahead and vote for Ed despite the fact that he’s not a fighter,” Stewart said in a post-election Washington Post interview.
Gillespie had hoped to be in the opposite position that he now faces. Forecasts suggested he would easily win the party nomination, while it appeared that the Democrats were in the closer contest. Possibly the best case Gillespie scenario was seeing a close Northam win after strongly securing his own nomination. Since the lieutenant governor moved far to the left to counter the Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren-supported Tom Perriello, Gillespie wanted maneuvering room to move closer to the center while Northam was trapped on the far left perch of his party.
As Stewart’s above comments make clear, it is Gillespie who will now have to move right to secure his base, thus allowing Northam, by virtue of his better-than-expected 56-44 percent victory, to tack back to the center.
Looking more closely at the Republican primary geographic distribution, Gillespie is actually in even worse shape than one might gather at first glance. The new nominee’s primary strength came from places where he will be overwhelmed in the general election. Gillespie took 65 percent of the Republican vote in the city of Alexandria, a locale where a Republican usually fails to even reach 40 percent in the general election. Arlington County was a close second on the Gillespie win list, as he took 61 percent of the GOP vote there. He also scored 57 percent in Henrico County near Richmond, and 48 percent in Fairfax County, all unattainable percentages for him in the general election.
In addition to spending time raising money for the general election, Gillespie will now have to repeatedly visit rural Virginia, courting the Republican base that generally went elsewhere in the primary. Once he secures the conservative ideological contingent, he can then turn his attention to catching and overtaking Northam but will have lost valuable time. At that point, Gillespie may be just too far behind to have a reasonable chance of catching the lieutenant governor in the fall election.