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The Virginia Governor’s Race Is a Depressing Preview of Next Year’s Elections

7 minute read

If the $29 million in television ads told the whole story, the race for Virginia Governor has come down to a career lobbyist who wants to build new monuments to the Confederacy running against a spineless doofus who hugs child pornographers and immigrants in the country illegally.

To say the lone competitive contest this Election Day has raced to the bottom would be an insult to, well, the bottom. The mudslinging deserves every ounce of condemnation heaped on the spurious and specious attacks. Media buyers in both parties put the sum spent on the air last week alone north of $7 million, and strategists lament how two serious candidates made themselves into cartoons.

And yet there are signs it may be the model heading into next year’s races, when a third of the Senate and the full House will be on ballots. That is why consultants from Miami to Monterey are watching what happens on Tuesday very closely, and 27 Republicans have announced they will retire from the House rather than run next year, compared to the seven Democrats who have done so.

Will the fear-based campaign messaging of former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie prevail? Or will the incumbent Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam’s pitch that the GOP is a party of corrupt bigots come out on top?

Regardless of the outcome Tuesday, winners will be in short supply.

Virginia should be a gimme’ for Democrats. It was the only Southern state that Hillary Clinton won last year. (The fact her vice presidential pick, Tim Kaine, is a beloved Senator and former Governor who counts his father-in-law as political royalty in the commonwealth didn’t hurt.) Demographics are trending in ways that should boost Democrats’ odds—college-educated, moderate, suburban and minority voters are flocking to the state. In 1992, the state’s electorate was 87% white, according to exit polls. That number fell to 67% last year. And in nine of the last 10 elections, the party that wins the White House loses the Governors’ office the following year.

Republicans chose to fight back. Hard. Looking at survey data from Virginia, they saw Donald Trump carried male voters, those age 45 and over, white voters of both genders, those without a college degree and married voters. Using Trump’s performance as a baseline, Gillespie started eyeing a message that appealed to the anxieties in his state, where 35% of votes in the 2016 exit polls said immigrants hurt the country and 21% said minorities were favored over non-minorities. The white-shoe lobbyist transformed himself into a culture warrior.

In the process, the Republican Party dragged itself through the muck in an attempt to replicate Trump’s grievance-based campaign. The campaign took a detour to debate the merits of sanctuary cities, locales where undocumented immigrants can avoid deportation. (Virginia, it should be noted, already has a law barring them, but that didn’t quiet the criticism from the Gillespie camp.) At the same time, Republicans promised to defend Confederate statues, which became a flash point when white supremacists marched through the streets of Charlottesville, Va. Ads featuring violent gang members seemed to be on a never-ending loop.

The Democrats, meanwhile, surrendered the moral high ground by joining the Republicans in campaigning from the gutter. One independent group featured young minorities being tailed by a white man in a pickup truck flying a Confederate flag and displaying a Gillespie bumper sticker. The implication was that Gillespie’s campaign was fueled by hate and violence. Northam’s campaign fared little better when it left his running mate — an African American — off campaign pamphlets at the behest of unions.

All the while, the party spilled into a messy feud from last year’s nominating race, thanks to a juicy tell-all from interim Democratic National Committee chairwoman Donna Brazile. “This is why we can’t have nice things,” one Democratic insider with long ties to Hillary Clinton mused on Monday, the eve of Brazile’s book release.

Public and private polls are scattershot; either Northam is up 17 points or down 8. Pollsters say the race has tightened in recent weeks, as ad spending broke in Gillespie’s favor for the first time since August. Pollsters have routinely over-estimated Democratic enthusiasm in the state, and in recent weeks spent hours trying to refine their projections about who would actually show up.

Democrats didn’t get much help from outside factors, though. Liberal groups denounced Northam for saying he does not support sanctuary cities, even after refusing to vote on such a ban earlier this year. (His campaign says he wasn’t going to vote to ban something that does not exist.) The group that grew out of Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign un-endorsed Northam, and the organization that came from Bernie Sanders’ campaign last year refused to help him after its preferred candidate lost in the Democratic primary.

That rift on the Left has Republicans more optimistic than they’ve been in months about winning on Tuesday. The ire directed at Northam over sanctuary cities — again, which do not exist in Virginia — could have deep cuts among progressive activists, liberal younger voters and minority residents. It’s why former President Obama, former Attorney General Eric Holder and Kaine were trying to help Northam; without a unified Democratic voting coalition, Democrats’ odds get tough.

Democrats, meanwhile, have their own reasons to grin heading into Election Day. Democrats knocked on more than 580,000 doors last weekend alone, polls have shown Northam ahead in most surveys and Gillespie has proven to be a better strategist than candidate. (Gillespie ran for the Senate in 2014 and narrowly lost. He has not become a more natural politician, his consultants acknowledge.) One analysis of early voting and absentee voting had unmarried women, minorities and young voters casting ballots in greater numbers than in 2013 and accounting for an increased share of the electorate.

Finally, there is the President himself. Democrats have done their best to tie Trump to Gillespie, even though the President’s involvement was limited to supportive tweets. The current Governor, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, urged voters to cast ballots against Northam as a protests against “Donald Trump-style politics.”

The disconnect between Trump and Gillespie didn’t quite matter. Gillespie is The Swamp personified. A former lobbyist, Republican National Committee chairman and White House counselor, Gillespie played the inside game for years — and profited from it. Now, he was trying to pick up the message of Trump’s anti-Washington campaign.

The stakes for the outcome are high for Virginians, whose lives in country’s 12th most populous state can be shaped on issues as varied as health care, voting rights and how congressional districts are drawn after the 2020 census. Virginia’s economy is roughly the size of Iran, Thailand or Belgium. Outside its borders, the Virginia race will offer a valuable — if limited — window into America’s politics in the Trump era.

The elections on Tuesday will be the first statewide tests since Trump’s election last year and are a proving ground for whether his brand of rage can be sustained or repelled.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com