A Quinnipiac poll shows Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) leading Republican Ed Gillespie in the gubernatorial race by 6 points. The more interesting aspects of the poll are those indicating how dramatically Virginia has shifted from red to blue.
For starters, the most prominent Democratic officials elected statewide are very popular: Gov. Terry McAuliffe (51 percent favorable/35 percent unfavorable), Sens. Mark Warner (59/30) and Tim Kaine (54/38). Contrast that with President Trump, who gets a thumbs up from only 36 percent of the public, with 61 percent rating him unfavorably. By a 49 to 38 percent margin, voters say they want Democrats to control the state legislature, and 64 percent are somewhat or very satisfied with the way the state is going. A stunning 72 percent say the state’s economy is good or excellent.
Ominously for Republicans, voters pick health care as the most important issue; in that department, they prefer Northam to Gillespie by a 10-point margin. And the worst of it for the GOP? Support for Trump prompts 48 percent to be less disposed to a candidate, and only 21 percent more likely to favor the candidate.
The data tell us several things.
First, should we really call Virginia a swing state any longer? Every statewide office (including attorney general) is held by a Democrat. The state has voted for a Democrat for president in three consecutive cycles. It’s not New Jersey, but it’s fair to call Virginia a blue state — even though its brand of Democrat may be more moderate than the national Democratic Party.
Second, the Democratic Party won over the suburbs and exurbs of Washington, D.C., while the GOP went hog wild on anti-immigration rhetoric, abortion and a host of other hot-button issues. Republicans love, love, love to talk about tax cuts, but the salience of that issue is limited on a state level; Virginia is the 40th most-taxed state. Not every state has a plethora of socially moderate, middle- and upper-class white-collar workers, but Democrats have played right to that group and it has paid off. Much of the political debate in the state centers on services — education, roads, health care — and that works against Republicans, who seem addicted to a 1980s message of tax cuts. Unless and until Republicans convince voters that they can do better than Democrats at providing those services, the GOP’s woes will continue.
Third, a primary that was supposed to be a breeze turned into a white-knuckle race between Trump-and-Confederate-statute-loving Corey Stewart (R). If the state GOP insists in the future that this is the model candidate, its electoral woes are likely to worsen.
Fourth, the challenge for Republicans not only in Virginia but in Sun Belt states such as Georgia and Arizona (with major universities, big suburban populations and a more diverse electorate than the Upper Midwest) is not how to keep faith with white, working-class voters. Rather, the challenge is how to appeal to minority and suburban voters who are not hostile toward government and won’t even consider candidates whom they see as bigoted, racist or homophobic. Republicans got by in an all-hands-on-deck special election in the Georgia 6th, but when all 435 House seats and a third of the Senate come up in 2018, the question will be:
Are Republicans’ endemic animosity toward government and incitement of white resentment a winning formula when Hillary Clinton isn’t there to scare off voters and the country has gotten a good look at Republican “governance”?