Voters will go to the polls next week to select new governors in New Jersey and Virginia. In the Garden State, New Jersians appear poised to erase the stain of Chris Christie’s eight years of degradation by electing Phil Murphy over Christie’s Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno. Virginia, however, appears to be a closer call, with polls all over the map, from a 17-point lead for Democrat Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam to an 8-point advantage for the Republican, Ed Gillespie. The Virginia race is quite interesting not only for its potential for election night drama, but also for the fascinating and disturbing dynamics currently playing out on the campaign trail.
Virginia is an extremely divided state. Not only is this purple state trending Democratic due to the growth of the DC suburbs over the last decade, but the character of the state Republican and Democratic electorates is moving apart as well. Virginia maintains vast swaths of rural, right-wing territory—it is a southern state and former home to the Confederacy after all—ranging from military bases on the Atlantic coast to coal country on the western border with Kentucky. With the radicalization of the national Republican Party over the last twenty years, the meat of Virginia’s GOP has thus lurched toward rabid anti-immigration and pro-NRA positions, along with a penchant for public displays of Confederate pride. This move has, in turn, pushed the previously large community of Republican D.C. business leaders residing in Northern Virginia to abandon their political identity and reclassify themselves as Democratic-leaning independents. For their part, Virginia Democrats have moved sharply leftward as the D.C. suburbs have continued to expand, with Virginia Democrats able to win election just by mobilizing liberal suburbanites, federal workers, and the state’s sizeable population of African-Americans.
What’s fascinating about this situation—close, contested general elections along with sharply polarized state parties—is that it provides a fantastic experiment for an age-old question. Which matters more for political positioning: the candidate or the party? Virginia in 2017 is showing pretty clearly that party, not personality is the determining factor. That conclusion is quite evident from a quick examination of the conduct of two men—Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe and the Republican Gubernatorial nominee Gillespie.
Terry McAuliffe won the Virginia governorship in 2013 without ever having previously held elected office and without being a life-long Virginian. His move to Virginia coincided with his enshrinement in the inner circle of Washington insiders. He served in various positions for the Democratic Party over the last twenty years, including serving as Democratic National Committee chairman during the Clinton years. He has been finance chair of numerous Democratic campaigns, including for President Clinton, and the national chair of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. And when not serving on campaigns or for party committees, McAuliffe has dutifully worked as a D.C. businessman and lobbyist. It is that kind of resume which has alienated McAuliffe from his more liberal base. Before becoming governor, McAuliffe was labeled a “soulless political animal” and “a money-raising machine with no core” by the liberal magazine Salon.
Like McAuliffe, Gillespie is a former national party chair, heading up the Republican National Committee during the Bush years. He also spent the final year and a half of that administration as a top aide to the President, in between stints at the public relations and lobbying firms he helped create. He ran unsuccessfully for Senate in 2014, and now is making his second run for state-wide office. In short, nearly the entirety of Gillespie’s professional life has been spent as either a political fundraiser, party advisor, lobbyist, or candidate. He, too, is a Virginia transplant, having grown up in New Jersey and moving to Virginia when he became a D.C. insider.
In short, McAuliffe and Gillespie are two peas in a pod. They are both establishment, centrist, party insiders with substantial political and business connections. They are consummate D.C. powerbrokers. And yet, their brief public records belie their establishment pasts.
Since becoming Governor, McAuliffe has positioned himself well within the party mainstream on most issues, and farther to the left on others. He was an early advocate of Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion and has sharply criticized our nation’s inability to pass sensible gun control legislation. He has spoken out against the bigotry of the Republican Party and taken strong stands against both the White Nationalist demonstrators in Charlottesville this year and the confederate statutes they marched to preserve. And in one of the most shocking policy developments of the last four years, McAuliffe took the remarkable step of restoring voting rights to hundreds of thousands of ex-felons, chipping away at a vestige of Jim Crow era restrictions.
For his part, Gillespie has run a race-baiting, fearmongering race against Northam that is unrecognizable to his establishment Republican friends. He is blanketing the airwaves with disingenuous advertisements about the MS-13 gang and illegal immigrants who “rape, kill, control.” Recently he began running ads focused exclusively on the Confederate statue issue, telling voters: “I’m for keeping them up.” If he gets elected, you can be sure he’ll stay true to the divisive politics that put him in Richmond.
Our politics are still defined by parties. Consider that when voting for a candidate who claims they’ll buck the status quo.