Ed Gillespie, left, and Ralph Northam. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

Rather than blame the House minority leader (without a shred of evidence that she’s responsible for their special-election losses), Democrats would do well to build their own populist agenda (improvements to Obamacare, no tax cuts for the rich, infrastructure, job training) and to tie every Republican to the unpopular president and his even less popular agenda. Oh, and they might go all out to win this year’s governor’s race in Virginia.

Quinnipiac, the first major post-primary poll, shows: “Wide gender and racial gaps mark the first post-primary survey of the Virginia governor’s race, as Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam leads Republican Ed Gillespie 47 – 39 percent. … The Democrat leads 54 – 33 percent among women, while the Republican leads 47 – 39 percent among men. . . .White voters back Gillespie 48 – 40 percent, while non-white voters back Northam 65 – 20 percent.” Each candidate’s support from his own party is at more than 90 percent; Gillespie has a statistically insignificant 2-point lead with independents.  In addition: “Virginia voters say 48 – 41 percent that they would like to see the Democrats in control of the State Legislature. The economy is the most important issue in deciding their vote for governor, 31 percent of voters say, while 30 percent list health care; 15 percent list education, with 10 percent each for taxes and immigration.” And here’s the kicker: “Only 25 percent of Virginia voters are more likely to vote for a candidate for governor who supports President Donald Trump, while 46 percent are less likely to vote for a Trump supporter and 28 percent say Trump support will have no impact on their vote for governor.”

That’s a problem for Gillespie, who has loyally supported Trump and moved right on immigration to pick up support among Trump voters. (He barely beat Trump acolyte Corey Stewart in the primary.)

In contrast to the national political scene, 60 percent of Virginians are somewhat or very satisfied with their state, and 63 percent think the state’s economy is good or excellent. (Virginia has an unemployment rate of only 3.8 percent.)

For Northam, the key will be to make the case that to keep the state’s economy growing, its infrastructure, schools and transportation systems have to be maintained. Gillespie has said that he can do all that and deliver a 10 percent tax cut, a feat Northam will call unrealistic and irresponsible. Especially in Northern Virginia, where Northam needs to rack up votes, he must convince voters that he will keep Virginia’s advantage as a relatively low-tax state, but also address the needs of a growing population, which cannot prosper if government hollows out and state services deteriorate. (Looking at property, income, sales and gross receipts taxes, Virginia ranked 40th among states, whereas nearby Maryland ranked 12th.) Perennial issues such as transportation and school funding will be critical to those voters, many of whom are highly educated and/or work for the federal government.

Northam also has a chance to paint Gillespie as a creature of Washington (he was a senior adviser to President George W. Bush and a lobbyist/consultant), someone who will import Trump’s radical brand of politics to a state that has moved steadily in Democrats’ favor over the past 10 years.

Gillespie will try to paint Northam as a tax-and-spend liberal, someone who would kill the state economy. (Northam’s website pushes back on that characterization. “Ralph knows that businesses are attracted to well-governed states,” it states. “He was in the Virginia Senate when the Great Recession hit, and he voted to cut spending by $4.6 billion to keep our budget balanced. He also supported tax relief for Virginia homeowners. Governors of both parties have conducted government efficiency reviews, and Ralph supports another complete audit of state operations because taxpayers deserve to know their money is being spent wisely.”)

In sum, Northam starts out with advantages in a state trending blue. He’ll win if he maintains his image as a moderate Democrat and responsible steward of the state’s economy while painting Gillespie as a Trump-like radical. Gillespie, in turn, will need to defend his tax and budget plans, convince Northern Virginia residents that he is not a Trump-type Republican and still generate enthusiasm from the base. It should be a well-contested race between two experienced, well-spoken candidates.