Let’s make a few things clear about Virginia’s gubernatorial race.
The final result is going to be close. The national parties and national organizations will pour millions of dollars into the race. It may get ugly. For voters, it will become tiresome.
And the outcome will very likely be decided by an event entirely beyond the control of either candidate’s campaign.
The race is close now – tied, according to the Monmouth University poll released Monday.
That feels about right. Neither candidate generates the kind of reactions Terry McAuliffe (D) or Ken Cuccinelli (R) did during the 2013 race. And, even in that heated contest, the July polling showed a close race, within the margin of error.
This time around, we don’t have the personalities, issues or scandals that defined that race. For that, we should all be grateful.
But what we do have is something far more volatile: a Trump presidency.
The Monmouth poll said that Trump was a “drag” on Gillespie, and that a “small but crucial portion” of Northam’s support came from those who don’t like Trump.
Monmouth’s Patrick Murray added that “unless one of the candidates breaks out with a clear advantage on Virginia-centric issues, the president could wind up as a decisive factor in the outcome.”
Perhaps anticipating Murray’s statement, Gillespie said at the first debate that he is “very focused on what’s going on in Virginia.”
But as Gillespie well knows, Virginia, tied so closely by proximity and purse strings to the federal government, cannot be divorced from national events.
So Gillespie had best be prepared for more questions about unrest in Trump’s Cabinet. He needs to be ready for the possibility that Trump, in a Nixonian fit of rage, fires not just Attorney General Jeff Sessions, but deputy AG Rod Rosenstein and special counsel Robert Mueller, too.
And he needs to be prepared for that most difficult of curveballs, a potential government shutdown in September.
Unlike the other landmines mentioned above, a shutdown hits Virginia directly.
And let’s not even get started on the whole Corey Stewart thing.
Judging by all this, it would look as though Northam has a relatively easier task ahead of him: Make no mistakes. Keep beating on Trump. Let recent electoral history and demographics carry him to victory in November.
Northam is running for McAuliffe’s second term. There’s no shame in that; Tim Kaine did much the same thing in 2005 when he ran and won as Mark Warner’s heir.
But Northam is no Tim Kaine, and he is certainly no Terry McAuliffe. Northam lacks Kaine’s skills on the stump and McAuliffe’s outsize personality.
As The Post wrote in its endorsement of Northam over Tom Perriello in the June Democratic primary, the lieutenant governor casts an “aw-shucks country-doctor affect.” Neither Kaine nor McAuliffe was ever considered that kind of politician.
The last time Democrats did nominate an “aw shucks” Democrat who understood the tribal customs of Richmond — Sen. Creigh Deeds, in 2009 — they lost. Badly.
Virginia has changed a bit since then. Virginia Democrats have dominated statewide races since the Deeds debacle, and Democratic presidential candidates have won the state three consecutive times.
But as any purchaser of mutual funds well knows, past results do not indicate future performance. Northam may not need to prepare for Trump shocks like Gillespie does, but he can’t count on them, either.
Likewise, he can’t count on voters in Democratic strongholds like Northern Virginia to automatically be in his corner. George Allen, Jim Gilmore and Bob McDonnell showed that those voters could be swayed to the GOP with the right message.
What is Northam’s quick, punchy, sticks-in-your-head message? That remains a mystery. He has a month to find one.
Otherwise, Gillespie could grind out a win in spite of everything stacked against him — and in the process, make himself a champion for every Republican who can’t stomach that man in the White House.