Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ralph Northam has drawn significant national attention with former president Barack Obama and vice president Joe Biden campaigning with him and 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Obama raising money for him.
In the aftermath of the primaries, the gubernatorial race seemed very policy- and Virginia-focused as the candidates sparred over tax policies, transportation plans, opioid-epidemic solutions and how to support economic development in high-tech Northern Virginia and post-industrial Southwest.
In recent weeks, though, the race has taken a sharper turn.
Whether rightly or not, many on both sides of the aisle are seeing Virginia’s gubernatorial election as the first true statewide referendum on the “new” political realignment.
The Republican Party now led by Trump has made a focused appeal to working-class Americans and Reagan Democrats. Trump, in one his Twitter endorsements of Gillespie, proclaimed, “Democrats in Southwest Virginia have been abandoned by their Party.”
This GOP has a greater tilt toward hot-button cultural issues, such as the NFL controversy, and is challenging much of the traditional economic dogma of past years.
And the Democratic Party now is embracing openly progressive positions on economic and social issues, a sharp turn away from former president Bill Clinton’s Third Way moderation.
Ironically, both representatives of their new realigned parties in the Virginia governor’s race are seemingly out of place. Gillespie has been seen as a more traditional Bush-era conservative. Northam is a moderate Democrat.
For the election to be a referendum on Trump seems improper, as the work of Virginia’s governor does not have much to do with the president’s agenda.
However, it could be said that this election will be an experiment for how these new party brands will appeal to voters. Virginia has been a fertile testing ground and swing state for the past few decades, even if its presidential election results have been one-sided lately.
Virginia has an especially diverse population, ranging from the old coal country in Southwest to rural country in Southside, from government workers and highly educated professionals in Northern Virginia to the more traditional metropolitan cities of Richmond and Virginia Beach.
We really have it all in Virginia, and perhaps that’s why the pollsters, consultants and other political professionals are clamoring over polling data and eagerly anticipating the Nov. 7 election results.
Given the highly public intervention of outside big names in the race, it is likely that people across the nation will be paying attention to the happenings in our commonwealth the next few weeks.
While the bulk of Virginians will almost certainly be making their choice on election day based on the kind of economic, transportation, social, criminal justice, etc., policies they want to see for themselves, their families and their communities, it is amusing that Virginia again finds itself in the national spotlight.