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Opinion Virginia’s invisible gubernatorial race

Virginia gubernatorial candidates Ed Gillespie, left, and Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam shake hands at the end of a debate on Tuesday in Washington. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

It’s the only competitive statewide race this year outside of the loonier-than-anticipated Alabama Senate race to replace Jeff Sessions. Yes, we’re less than eight weeks away from Virginia’s gubernatorial election and you’d hardly know it. Two polite, middle-of-the road candidates are competing in a race that hasn’t exactly grabbed voters’ attention.

The Post reports:

Democrat Ralph Northam and Republican Ed Gillespie jousted over the economy, race relations in the aftermath of Charlottesville and health care Tuesday night at their most lively encounter yet in the high stakes race for Virginia governor.
In their first televised debate, the two contenders sparred over issues in a spirited but genteel manner, and refrained from the personal attacks that have recently begun to flavor their campaign commercials and social media posts.

Genteel — or boring? Well, the candidates seem unwilling to mix it up face to face, and the avalanche of TV ads has yet to descend upon voters. Mind you, lack of interest and visibility is nothing new in a state famous for ignoring its off-year election until the final stretch.

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Polls have been all over the map — Quinnipiac shows Northam up by 10 points with 51 percent. (President Trump’s disapproval rating is at 58 percent, with only 39 percent approval.) Other polls show the race in single digits. The RealClearPolitics average has Northam up by 3.3 points, but in Virginia terms, the election is still a lifetime away.

As with everything in the Trump era, the low-visibility governor’s race may be a result of nonstop presidential controversies (from Charlottesville to Russia scandals to the United Nations speech) that divert attention, especially in the Washington suburbs of Northern Virginia, to national politics.

Nevertheless, there are big issues at stake — taxes, schools, the state budget and, perhaps most important, health care. On health care, Gillespie awkwardly though understandably seems to want to duck the elephant in the room — GOP attempts to repeal Obamacare. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported:

On health care, Gillespie appeared to say during the debate that he opposes the latest Republican-sponsored legislation in the U.S. Senate to replace the Affordable Care Act. The Graham-Cassidy legislation, Gillespie said onstage, “falls short” on making sure Virginia doesn’t suffer for refusing to expand Medicaid. In the media gaggle after the debate, Gillespie said he’s not taking a position on any specific legislation.

Well, that’s not very forthcoming. Fifteen GOP governors have weighed in to support the latest Affordable Care Act replacement proposal; 10 other governors, both Democrats and Republicans, have weighed in to oppose the bill. If passed, it will have drastic consequences for Medicaid and for Americans buying health care on the individual exchanges. It sure seems like something Gillespie should specifically address.

The most important difference beyond health care is the candidates’ differing visions on state taxes and spending. Like every Republican running for statewide office for decades, Gillespie is touting a tax-cut plan. He is not altogether clear on how he is going to fund budget priorities. This approach assumes — falsely, I think — that Virginians feel overtaxed and don’t want to spend to upgrade roads, schools and other government services.

Northam, on the other hand, promises to spend more on schools, roads and health care. His website, for example, says, “Teacher pay in Virginia is now well below the national average, and we’re losing good teachers because of it. This is contributing to inequality in our education system, as rural and less affluent school districts cannot afford to supplement state funding. Ralph will work with Democrats and Republicans alike to attack inequality in education by raising pay for teacher—a bipartisan priority in Richmond.”

Northam’s approach is well-designed to appeal to populous Northern Virginia counties where the concerns center on school quality, traffic, mental-health care, college costs and the like. Moderate voters in the suburbs and exurbs of Washington aren’t begging for tax cuts, but they are concerned about preserving a quality of life for their children (especially making sure that they are college-ready) and continuing to build the technology sector. These voters aren’t necessarily opposed to spending more money — if they get value for their dollar.

A decade ago, the Gillespie philosophy would have been a clear winner. However, with white-collar voters, tech workers, minorities and government employees coming into the state, Virginia’s demographic balance has shifted. George Mason University professor Lisa A. Sturtevant writes:

Between 2000 and 2010, the population of Virginia’s metropolitan areas grew by 14.3 percent while the non-metro area population grew by only 6.8 percent. Northern Virginia was the main driver of the state’s population growth. More than half (51.4 percent) of the state’s net new residents over the past decade live in Northern Virginia. Five of the state’s 10 fastest-growing counties and independent cities are located in Northern Virginia: the counties of Loudoun, Prince William, Stafford, and Spotsylvania, and the City of Manassas Park.

Moreover, Virginia has become far more diverse:

While Virginia is still a majority-white state, the minority share of the population has grown from 29.8 percent in 2000 to 35.2 percent in 2010. The biggest gain in the state was among the Hispanic population, which nearly doubled between 2000 and 2010. The Asian population grew by 68.3 percent while the population of other races (including those of two or more races) grew by 50.8 percent. In contrast, the state’s African-American and white populations grew slowly. The African-American population grew by 10.7 percent between 2000 and 2010, while the white population grew by only 4.4 percent. … The move to majority-minority populations in some metropolitan areas and the rapidly changing racial and ethnic composition of the state’s rural areas have important implications for the provision of local services, including voter-registration efforts, public education, and social services, and creates challenges for engaging and incorporating new populations into existing communities.

In short, the race may boil down to whether Gillespie can sell the new Virginia on his standard-fare Republican ideas or whether the state wants a governor who thinks lower taxes are not the highest priority. We’ve seen the state shift from red to blue over the past decade. If the 2008, 2012 and 2016 presidential races (Virginia went Democratic in all) and recent rounds of U.S. Senate races are any indication, Gillespie may be about a decade too late to win the state.