By Jim Ellis
June 14, 2017 — The Virginia governor primaries actually produced the expected winners for both sides last night, but the margins and the candidates’ points of geographical strength turned the pre-election predictions upside down.
Going into yesterday’s vote, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam was generally favored to prevail in a close Democratic contest over former US Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Charlottesville). The tangible result, however, provided Northam a substantial 56-44 percent win, a performance that saw him easily carrying the areas where Perriello had to make major inroads if the latter was to construct a winning statewide bid.
Specifically, vote-rich northern Virginia, where Perriello was making a strong campaign effort and went as far left as possible in an attempt to attract the region’s Democratic primary voters, failed to come through for him. Northam took the city of Alexandria, and Arlington and Fairfax Counties with percentages of 61, 62, and 60 percent, respectively, far above his projected vote performance.
Northam also racked up big percentages in his Tidewater home base, scoring between 67 and 72 percent in Chesapeake, Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, Suffolk, and Virginia Beach. He also recorded big numbers in the Richmond area: 55 percent in the city of Richmond, and 59 percent in Henrico County.
Surprisingly, it was in the rural regions where Perriello did well, particularly in his former 5th Congressional District, which is anchored in Charlottesville. Except for his totals coming from the Charlottesville metro area, the result was again opposite of projections. Originally, it was Northam who was supposed to perform better in the rural regions.
Total turnout also favored the Democrats, with 60 percent of the more than 909,000 voters choosing to vote in the Dem primary.
But the bigger surprise came in the form of a near upset in the Republican contest. Here, ex-Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie was supposed to comfortably win the primary in similar proportion to what Northam actually achieved.
While Gillespie did win the nomination, he did so by only one percentage point, just slipping past Prince William County Board Chairman Corey Stewart with a mere 4,317-vote statewide cushion, or a 44-43 percent spread, with one precinct still not reporting. Virginia Beach state Sen. Frank Wagner proved only a minor factor, taking just 14 percent of the statewide vote.
The Stewart performance underscores that Republican primary voters are still favorable to a Trump-style candidate. Stewart had been the Trump Virginia co-chairman until comments he made during the campaign forced the Trump leadership to ask for his resignation. Outspent 5:1, Stewart still almost won the nomination, once again slapping down the GOP establishment to the point that the upset victory was almost in his hands.
The parties and candidates now turn toward the general election, and beginning in a different circumstance than analysts had suggested. Gillespie was supposed to have scored a sizable enough victory that he could quickly begin to tack to the center, taking advantage of how far left Northam had to go to neutralize Perriello.
Considering his small victory margin, Gillespie will now have to strengthen his Republican base in order to have a credible chance to overtake Northam. With Virginia moving decidedly toward the Democrats, Gillespie needed the exact opposite primary result in both parties – he would score a strong win with the Democrats languishing in a close contest – to begin the general election campaign on relatively even footing.
In the last gubernatorial campaign here in 2013, the Republican national political apparatus abandoned gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli, believing he was too far right to win in the Old Dominion. Finishing just three percentage points behind winner Terry McAuliffe (D), despite being overwhelmingly outspent, proved the party leaders wrong. While it is unlikely they will desert a former national chairman this year, the primary results suggest that Gillespie is in far weaker position transitioning into the general election than most would have expected on the day after the primary.