Virginia Election Seen as Referendum on Trump

(CN) – Virginia voters will be among the first in the nation to show their support or disdain for President Donald Trump when they head to the ballot box on Tuesday, a year after Trump’s victory stunned the world.

The top three state positions are up for grabs – governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general – as are the state’s 100 House of Delegates seats.

While the executive positions have grabbed the most headlines, the House seats have proven unique fodder for political study after the majority switched to Republican control in 2000.

Meanwhile, the highest seats of power have shifted blue.

Most polls lean towards a win for the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, current lieutenant governor and pediatric neurologist Ralph Northam.

But if 2016 taught Americans anything, it’s that polling is a dice roll, and there are a few good tea leaves floating around for the Republican in the race, Washington lobbyist and former chair of the Republican National Committee, Ed Gillespie. Some polls show him with a lead.

Looking at primary turnout from this summer and 2016, however, could offer more concrete insight into what motivates voters across the commonwealth.

2016 was a banner year for primaries in Virginia. Over 1 million people voted in the 2016 GOP primary, more than the past two GOP primaries combined. Trump beat Florida Sen. Marco Rubio by a mere 30,000 votes.

Trump went on to lose the state by about 200,000 votes, less of a surprise considering Virginia went for former President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

These numbers alone could be bad news to those looking for controversy: Virginia, at least state wide, is probably more blue than some pundits would hope, but there are a few other factors to keep in mind.

Virginians vote every year, which leads to consistently predictable voter fatigue. While the state averages around 70 percent for presidential election turnout, that number drops rapidly to the 40s the year after.

This, combined with the theory that voters choose the opposition party the year after a presidential win, could be why the state’s House seats have shifted so radically red.

But current Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s 2013 win, along with Northam and Mark Herring’s wins for lieutenant governor and attorney general, respectively, bucks that trend.

There were a number of other factors which helped propel McAuliffe, an out-of-state Democratic National Committee fundraiser with little governing experience, to the seat he is about to walk away from: As the nation embraced Obama’s progressive politics, at least in the cities, Virginia’s former Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell was pushing a socially conservative agenda.

McDonnell – whose corruption convictions were overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court last year – signed one of the nation’s first modern religious freedom bills, known then as a “conscience clause,” which allowed state-funded religious adoption agencies to deny services based on their faith.

He also signed Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers, or TRAP, laws which added burdens for abortion access. One of those laws inspired a protest that saw 30 demonstrators get arrested on the steps of the state Capitol building, spurring the state’s progressive base.

And then there was Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican attorney general under McDonnell, who also pushed a conservative agenda, including the TRAP laws, which often put Virginia in a light that the state’s powerful and progressive cities and Washington, D.C. suburbs did not like.

The 2013 gubernatorial election between McAuliffe and Cuccinelli proved to be one for the books, featuring two widely criticized candidates going head-to-head for the most powerful seat in the state.

McAuliffe scraped by, beating Cuccinelli by just 50,000 votes. In the largest showing for a third-party candidate in Virginia’s history, Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis earned 6 percent of the vote, just a few points shy of guaranteeing his party’s access to the ballot this year.

Now, four years later, a recent survey from the Virginia-based Wason Center for Public Policy shows only 35 percent of residents in the state approve of Trump’s job as president.

Perhaps not surprisingly, those numbers are split along party lines – 96 percent of Democrats say he’s not doing a good job, compared to 16 percent of Republicans. But it’s that 96 percent that could have Gillespie, the Republican candidate for Virginia governor, worried.

Record-breaking primary numbers from this year show an energized left. More than 524,000 Democrats voted in June, compared to 365,000 Republicans.

Outgoing Virginia Gov. McAuliffe ran uncontested in 2013. During the 2009 primaries, only 320,000 Democrats showed up to the polls.

Former Gov. McDonnell was chosen by a GOP party convention, the same way Cuccinelli got on the ticket four years later. The Republican Party of Virginia has since switched to a primary system in the hopes of avoiding another fringe candidate, something that almost happened this year anyway when Gillespie barely beat out Corey Stewart, a Confederate Flag-waving former Trump state chairman who called Gillespie a “cuckservative” on Reddit.

Outside of the race for governor, one of the most headline-grabbing races is happening in Virginia’s 13th House District, where Republican Del. Bob Marshall has held a grip on the D.C. suburbs of Prince William County since 1991.

Marshall, 73, is known for being one of the most radical delegates in the Virginia House. He helped author a 2006 voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage and once said disabled children are God’s punishment for abortion. That statement and others have earned Marshall the nickname “Sideshow Bob” from the Washington Post.

His opponent this year, Danica Roem, is a 33-year-old transgender former journalist. Her story of a transgender woman challenging an anti-LGBT lawmaker has generated both headlines and money.

Roem has raised more than twice as much as Marshall this year, with a large portion coming from out-of-state donors like the Victory Fund, which supports LGBT candidates nationwide.

According to the Virginia Public Access Project, she has also been backed by more than 11,300 donors who gave less than $100, compared to 858 for Marshall, who has said Roem’s gender identity is “against the laws of nature and nature’s God.”

But it’s not all good news for Democrats.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Northam spent a lot of money in his primary race against former U.S. congressman and Obama-appointed diplomat Tom Perriello, and has struggled with rural voters.

Perriello, whose roots lie in the western side of the state, railed against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a project set to bring natural gas to states along the East Coast. Environmentalists have argued it will damage wetlands, farmlands and people’s lands. Perriello agreed and promised to stop the project.

Northam, an Eastern Shore native who has advocated against offshore drilling, believes the pipeline project can be done safely with more regulation. Dominion Power, the company building the pipeline, he said it’s simply an expansion of a pipeline network that already exists underground across Virginia.

Members of Northam’s own party have reminded him of their concerns about the pipeline and other issues, especially during his visits to rural parts of the state.

Perriello has since taken to stumping for Northam, but the wounds are still open for those opposed to the project.

Neither candidate for governor has done much to court voters in Virginia’s rolling western hills and mountains.

The Roanoke Times, the region’s largest newspaper, has struggled to elevate either candidate.

“The choice between Northam and Gillespie is really a choice between whether you think the glass is half full or half empty,” the paper’s editorial page said after the candidates’ second debate, held in rural Wise County. “Both candidates would do very different things as governor, of course, but neither of them will embarrass us.”

Rural voters had an impact in last year’s presidential race, handing key states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin to Trump despite their history of going blue.

Gillespie’s chances could be better than expected if Virginians walk into the polls on Tuesday with a mindset similar to last year’s. But if Trump has had a negative impact on voters and Virginia Democrats stay fired up, they could pull off a sweep.

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