Virginians began voting Tuesday to select candidates for this fall’s election of governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and every seat in the House of Delegates, as well as other local offices.
The nation is watching what otherwise would be a sleepy primary, with Virginia serving as political laboratory for how the parties handle the deep divisions that followed last year’s election of President Trump.
The race for governor, especially, has focused nearly as much on reaction to events in Washington as to policy concerns within the state. Outside groups have poured money and attention into Virginia, and a vast army of new candidates have flooded the Democratic side of House races – including a record number of women candidates.
Virginia voters have been slow to focus on the elections. Some said the constant stream of news from the Trump administration has distracted them.
But with polls opening at 6 a.m. across the Old Dominion and closing at 7 p.m., a picture will soon emerge of where voters are taking this perennial battleground state.
On the Republican side, three candidates vying for the top spot on the ticket represent different paths for a party still adjusting to its unconventional president and the forces that propelled him into office.
Corey A. Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, has run most closely in Trump’s image, drawing attention with provocative statements and rallies to promote preserving Confederate memorials.
State Sen. Frank Wagner (Virginia Beach) is basing his run on his 25 years of experience in the General Assembly, which defies the anti-establishment fervor that accompanied Trump’s rise.
And former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie is playing it down the middle – he has been a lukewarm supporter of Trump but casts himself as a true conservative who will cut taxes and promote business.
Gillespie has a tremendous advantage in fundraising and has led his opponents by a large margin in most statewide polls.
The Democratic side also has echoed national themes. Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam is the handpicked successor of Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who is prevented by the state constitution from serving a second consecutive term.
Northam spent years cultivating support around the state and has the endorsement of almost all of Virginia’s elected Democrats, including both U.S. senators and every Democrat in the General Assembly. His opponent, former congressman Tom Perriello, entered the race unexpectedly in January and up-ended the state party’s orderly plans.
Tapping into the populist fervor of last year’s Bernie Sanders campaign, and drawing most of his money from out of state, Perriello has turned the race into a referendum on Trump and is betting that Virginians are dissatisfied with their establishment Democrats.
“It is really the first big test in a statewide election of the state of the Democratic party in the Trump era,” said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.
The only other gubernatorial contest this year is in New Jersey, but that race is not considered competitive by political observers, who say the Democrat is heavily favored.
Trump’s approval rating in Virginia is even worse than it is nationwide: Only 36 percent of Virginians were satisfied with his performance in a poll conducted last month by The Washington Post and the Schar School.
That creates a challenge for Republican candidates, Rozell said, because the party’s base still supports the president. Virginia’s primary will show “whether a prominent Republican in a major campaign is able to separate himself in the public’s mind from the unpopular policies and actions of the Trump administration, while at the same time not losing much of the Republican support a candidate is going to need to win a general election,” he said.
Gillespie has kept a relatively low profile in the past several weeks, not even showing up at some events attended by his opponents as he tries to conserve money and cement his frontrunner status.
But perhaps more than in most elections, voter turnout is going to play a major role for both parties.
This is the first time Virginia has ever held gubernatorial primaries for both major parties on the same day. Turnout for such springtime contests is usually small; but inflamed by events in Washington, voters could show up in greater numbers this year.
In one indicator, Democratic voters requested more absentee ballots this year than in last year’s presidential primary – more than 35,000, compared with just over 28,000 a year ago, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
Republican absentee ballot requests were down, though – 18,000 this year, compared with more than 27,500 a year ago.
If Republican turnout is low, then Stewart’s strategy of firing up a small but intensely loyal base could prove decisive.
On the Democratic side, Perriello is particularly hopeful of a big turnout. Northam has the full machinery of the state party encouraging Democrats to come out and vote. So Perriello has been roaming the state trying to inspire voters who don’t usually participate in primaries – the young, for instance, and even red-district conservatives who might respond to his populist stance.
As always for Virginia Democrats, African American voters could make up as much as a third of the primary electorate. Both Northam and Perriello have stepped up their appeals to black voters in recent weeks. Northam and surrogates such as U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott and Del. Marcia Price (Newport News) have attended black churches, while Perriello has toured black-owned businesses.
Despite the shadow of Trump and the national overtones, a few actual issues have worked their way into the races.
The Republicans have tussled over taxes. Gillespie proposed a 10 percent income tax cut; Stewart promised to cut even more. Wagner, on the other hand, said Virginia’s budget is already tight and that cutting taxes further could jeopardize the state’s AAA bond rating.
He proposed raising the gasoline tax and using the money to improve transportation.
The two Democratic candidates have only a few policy differences. The sharpest is probably their stance regarding two natural gas pipelines proposed for the western and southern parts of the state.
Perriello is against both projects, and has slammed Northam for taking campaign contributions from Dominion Energy, the state’s biggest utility and builder of one of the pipelines. Northam has not taken a firm stand on the pipelines, saying only that they must be subject to strict environmental review.
The issue has stirred passions on the campaign trail, especially in the southwestern part of the state. And its influence on the primary could be significant.
Some people have gotten involved in the race simply “because they don’t like the pipelines,” said longtime Virginia political scientist Bob Holsworth. That includes some who would typically vote Republican, he said, but who “may vote in the Democratic primary for Perriello because he has the distinctive position.”
Among the Republican candidates, Gillespie and Wagner have supported the pipelines, while Stewart has blasted Dominion and its influence in the state.
In the battle for lieutenant governor, each party features three candidates. The Republicans are all members of the General Assembly – state Sens. Jill Holtzmann Vogel (Fauquier) and Bryce Reeves (Spotsylvania) and Del. Glenn Davis (Virginia Beach). That race has gotten ugly at times, as Vogel, a lawyer, and Reeves, a veteran and insurance salesman, have traded accusations of dirty tricks.
Davis, meanwhile, who is also a lawyer, has been touring the state in a recreational vehicle and has stayed out of the accusations.
The Democratic slate for lieutenant governor features three candidates who have not held elected office. Justin Fairfax, a former federal prosecutor from Fairfax County, came close to winning the nomination for attorney general in 2013 and since then has worked with candidates around the state.
Susan Platt, a lobbyist and former Democratic operative also from Fairfax, has been campaigning heavily against President Trump. And Gene Rossi, a former federal prosecutor, is running a self-funded campaign as an underdog and outsider.
There is no primary for attorney general, as each party has a single candidate: incumbent Mark Herring for the Democrats, and former federal prosecutor John Adams for the Republicans.
In the House of Delegates, all 100 seats are on the ballot. Democrats caught up in anti-Trump fervor say they want to pick up enough seats to take over the majority, but that will be a tough task. Republicans have a 66 to 34 advantage.
Seventeen of those Republican districts, though, went for Hillary Clinton last fall, suggesting they could be ripe for turning blue. Democrats are also wrestling with each other over the future of the party, as progressive activists challenge some incumbents – including Del. David Toscano (Charlottesville), who is House Minority Leader.
He faces no Republican opponent this fall, but is contending with a primary challenge from University of Virginia graduate student Ross Mittiga.
“What we’re seeing is not only frustration with Trump among Democrats,” said University of Mary Washington political scientist Stephen Farnsworth, “but even within the Democratic party, a sense that a higher level of opposition to the Republicans is the better approach.”