Showdown in Virginia: Can Gillespie pull off the upset?

After a string of special elections that Democrats and the media tried spinning into harbingers for 2018, the real deal shows up today in Virginia and New Jersey. Republicans will almost certainly lose control of the executive branch in the Garden State, where Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno bears the burden of Chris Christie’s deep unpopularity. Former Goldman Sachs exec Phil Murphy, a political neophyte, leads by double digits in every poll since the race began, and has an RCP aggregate average lead of 14.4 points over Guadagno.

New Jersey is headed back to full Democratic control, but that has much more to do with Christie’s collapse than national politics. It’s interesting to see Democrats once again embrace a rich Goldman Sachs executive as their Garden State savior, too. Say, how is Jon Corzine these days?

In Virginia, however, the outcome is anyone’s guess. Republican Ed Gillespie has narrowed the gap against Democrat Ralph Northam and trails by just 3.3 points in RCP’s aggregate.  Two recent polls — Rasmussen and Roanoke — put it at a dead heat. At stake is a potential party change in the Old Dominion and bragging rights for the 2018 cycle. As in some of the special elections earlier this year, both sides have poured a ton of money into the race for that very reason:

The election has set a record for absentee voting. The more than 147,000 absentee votes cast as of Friday night is the most for a nonpresidential year in Virginia history.

A record amount of money has been spent on the three statewide contests for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general, and both Democrats and Republicans say their volunteers have doubled or tripled the number of home visits, phone calls and text messaging to get voters to turnout, compared to the 2013 governor’s race.

The focus is not all on the executive, either:

Republicans have a 66-34 advantage in the lower legislative chamber; Democrats would need to flip 17 seats to win control. They are focusing their efforts on 17 legislative districts represented by Republicans but carried by Hillary Clinton last fall. Still, many of those districts are in exurbs where minorities and millennials vote Democratic in presidential races but historically don’t show up for state races the following year.

After last year’s relatively comfortable win by Hillary Clinton in Virginia, Democrats thought they would have no problem replacing outgoing Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe. However, the party has become quite nervous about Northam’s chances, James Antle reports for the Washington Examiner:

“Well, it’s like Hillary Clinton is on the ballot in our state,” said a Virginia-based Democratic strategist. “Northam is the establishment candidate who has many of the things on paper that you’d like to see in a candidate but he suffers from a lack of charisma and excitement. That’s not helpful in a low-turnout race.”

“Exacerbating that problem, the Latino Victory Fund ad handed Republicans an opportunity on a silver platter to energize their base. It was a very poor decision to run an ad like that, especially so close to the election,” the strategist added. …

After the controversy, Northam was then seen as equivocating on “sanctuary cities” that do not fully cooperate with federal immigration enforcement, earning a rebuke from the liberal group Democracy for America. The organization’s executive director accused Northam of playing “directly into the hands of Republicans’ racist anti-immigrant rhetoric on sanctuary cities,” adding “we refuse to be silent any longer and even remotely complicit in the disastrous, racist, and voter-turnout-depressing campaign Ralph Northam appears intent on running.”

As I’ve mentioned before, Democrats have every reason to be nervous. Gillespie came from being nearly ten points down in the RCP average the week of the 2014 election to come within a few thousand votes of beating Mark Warner for his senate seat. Northam does not have Warner’s statewide popularity or charisma, and his campaign missteps could seriously damage his GOTV efforts. I featured Gillespie’s 2014 race in my book Going Red, which looked at his ability to connect with voters in crucial northern Virginia counties:

How did Gillespie almost steal Virginia’s senate seat from Warner? The key was outreach in communities outside the Republican Party’s normal comfort zone, Gillespie says, emphasizing his own experience as a first-generation American. “I am the son of an immigrant myself, and would make that point in these communities,” Gillespie recalls. “My father came here as a boy from Ireland. My grandfather was a janitor, and I got to grow up to be counselor to the president of the United States of America.” He used that experience as an entrée to these communities, emphasizing his desire to duplicate it for their families. “I want the same opportunities for future generations,” he told them during his campaign.

Gillespie also focused on themes and issues that resonated across community lines, emphasizing “upward mobility and job creation, economic growth, lifting people out of poverty, and higher wages,” as well as “education, a reform-and-replace plan for ObamaCare, energy production, and more affordable energy.” More important than the message itself was where and how Gillespie communicated it.

“I went into the black churches in Prince William, and to places a lot of Republicans have not gone,” he says. County Republican Party vice chair D. J. Jordan, a leading African American conservative in Prince William, corroborates this. “Grace Church Dumfries is a church that Ed Gillespie visited in October 2014,” Jordan recalls, “and he was very well received. They welcomed him from the pulpit and he was able to talk to those who were out in the lobby afterwards.”

With the race this close, I’d guess that Gillespie pulls it off tonight, and Republicans keep control of the legislature. Either way, it should be close — an exciting finish to what may well be a true harbinger of the 2018 cycle.

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