By Jim Ellis
Feb. 7, 2017 — A new Christopher Newport University poll (Jan. 15-28, 1,002 registered Virginia voters; 464 self-identified Democrats and Lean Independents, 418 self-identified Republicans and Lean Independents) finds weakness in Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam’s candidacy, putting former Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Charlottesville) within early striking distance for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.
According to the survey, Northam has only a 26-15 percent Democratic primary lead over Perriello, far short of what would be expected considering that the former has locked down the party establishment.
Northam’s political Achilles heel is his lack of name identification. Even though he is the Commonwealth’s lieutenant governor, a huge 77 percent of the respondents either expressed no opinion of Northam (64 percent), or they “didn’t know/refused to answer (13 percent). Of those who could identify him, the lieutenant governor had a 16:7 percent favorable to unfavorable ratio. Perriello, on the other hand, scored similarly: 11:8 percent positive to negative, 81 percent no opinion/didn’t know/refused to answer.
Though Perriello’s numbers are slightly worse than Northam’s, they are unsurprising for an individual who served only one term in Congress from a district that encompasses just one-eleventh of the state’s population. Though Northam is a statewide elected official, the Virginia lieutenant governor’s office is virtually powerless, having a role only when the legislature is in session…from the state that has fewer legislative calendar days then any in the Union during the two-year cycle (98 total days). Therefore, no lieutenant governor gets much opportunity to make news during his or her term in office.
Perriello has a path to victory. With a political base in Charlottesville, the former congressman attacking Northam from the left means Perriello could mine support in vote rich northern Virginia. Thus, the two geographic centers could provide the former congressman with enough support to launch a formidable, potentially winning campaign operation.
A clear Northam positive is his major fundraising edge over Perriello, who is just getting started with his campaign. At the Jan. 15 campaign disclosure deadline, Northam led all candidates by raising $1.6 million. This was just slightly ahead of the top GOP candidate, former Republican National Committee chairman and 2014 Senate nominee Ed Gillespie, who attracted $1.5 million in campaign contribution support.
Turning to the Republican side of the equation, Gillespie is jumping out to a comfortable lead against his two substantive primary challengers. According to the Christopher Newport January data, the former RNC chairman draws 33 percent support from self-identified Republicans and the Independents who say they lean toward the GOP. Neither state Sen. Frank Wagner (R-Virginia Beach) nor Prince William County Board chairman Corey Stewart (R) breaks into double-digits. Wagner scores nine percent support; Stewart, seven percent.
Gillespie is the most well known of all the gubernatorial candidates, but he has a long way to go to reach a plateau where even half of the electorate can easily identify him. His favorability index is 2:1 (20-10 percent) positive to negative, but only 30 percent are familiar enough with him to express an opinion.
The open Virginia governor’s race is likely to attract the most national attention of any campaign during 2017. This is a redistricting election because the winner will be in office when the next congressional and state legislative boundaries are drawn. So, there is a federal element to this contest, as well.
The early polling is telling us that the race is wide open. Though the CM poll did not ask a general election ballot test, other early polling has shown a tight race between Northam and Gillespie. This latest data tells us that at least the Democratic primary also has the potential of becoming a competitive battle.
The party primaries are scheduled for June 13. Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) is ineligible to seek a second term. The Commonwealth of Virginia is the last state that limits its governors to just one four-year term in office.