How the Virginia Governor’s Race Will Be a Test of Trump’s Impact
Virginia is expected to be the more competitive of the two contests, as polls show Mr. Northam with only a narrow advantage, while Mr. Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive and ambassador, enjoys a sizable lead. There are also a host of local races, from mayoral contests to a special election in Washington State to a health care referendum in Maine, we will be keeping an eye on.
Here are some factors we will be paying attention to as voters go to the polls Tuesday.
Virginia Is Becoming Two States in One
Virginia’s politics are becoming sharply bifurcated by region in ways that reflect the country’s political trends. The so-called “urban crescent,” stretching from the Washington suburbs down to greater Richmond and east toward the Chesapeake Bay, is growing rapidly thanks to an influx of transplants who are transforming it into a Democratic bulwark. The western half of the state, as well as the southern tier bordering North Carolina, are seeing little population growth, and in some places even a decline, while becoming deeply Republican.
These trends are turning Virginia from purple to blue, but it is an uneven progression for Democrats because — as in much of the country — many of their core voters are less likely to vote in nonpresidential years. So while Hillary Clinton carried Prince William County, a booming and ethnically diverse Washington exurb, by 21 points last year, Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, only won it by eight points in 2013.
A Virginia Democrat with rural roots such as Mr. Northam, who still carries the accent of his native Eastern Shore, may be able to outperform Mrs. Clinton’s dismal numbers in the Republican-trending rural reaches of the state. But even if Mr. Gillespie performs as well as Mr. Trump in the countryside, it will not be enough to win if he cannot cut into the growing Democratic advantage in Virginia’s population centers, especially in vote-rich northern Virginia. After all, Mr. Trump still lost the state by more than five points even as he dominated rural Virginia.
The Education Divide Could Still Matter
The gulf between college-educated whites and white voters without a college degree was a defining demographic split of the 2016 presidential election, but the divide has not been as pronounced in the elections held since.
Still, could the education gap be poised for a comeback? A New York Times Upshot/Siena College poll ahead of the race, among other surveys, showed Mr. Northam holding a clear lead among well-educated white voters, while giving Mr. Gillespie a vast advantage edge among white voters without a degree.
If Mr. Gillespie struggles to run ahead of Mr. Trump among well-educated voters, it might be a warning sign that even establishment-friendly Republicans cannot count on returning to pre-2016 levels among a group that used to lean their way. And it should worry Republicans in historically conservative, well-educated districts across the Sun Belt, like those in Orange County, Calif., or the suburbs of Dallas and Houston.