The Virginia governor’s race is a dead heat, with Republican nominee Ed Gillespie tied with Democrat Ralph Northam, according to a new survey released Monday.
The poll of likely voters by Monmouth University found Gillespie and Northam tied with 44 percent each. Libertarian candidate Cliff Hyra drew 3 percent, while 9 percent were undecided.
President Trump, seen unfavorably by 57 percent of Virginia voters and favorably by 37 percent, is looming large in the November gubernatorial contest, the country’s marquee statewide race this year.
Nearly four in 10 voters said Trump was a factor in their choice for governor. Half of Northam supporters listed Trump as a factor in their decision-making, compared with one-third of Gillespie backers and one-third of undecided and third-party voters.
“A small but crucial portion of Northam’s support is coming from voters who are primarily anti-Trump, said Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute. “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.”
Northam, who called the president “a narcissistic maniac” in a widely seen campaign ad, appears to be benefiting from a Trump backlash. The poll found that if Trump were not a factor in the election, 12 percent of Northam voters would shift their support elsewhere and Gillespie would have a five-point lead.
Gillespie faces a dilemma: Virginia is the only Southern state won by Hillary Clinton in 2016 and a place where Trump is deeply unpopular. In the months leading up to the June primary, Gillespie tried to distance himself from Trump, and nearly lost the Republican nomination to Corey Stewart, a provocateur who ran a Trump-like campaign.
Since that near-loss, Republicans from the White House to the state legislature have urged Gillespie to surround himself with strategists who understand Trump voters and to embrace some parts of the president’s agenda. In recent weeks, Gillespie has begun mentioning Trump and touting his ability to work with the Trump White House.
Both candidates have room to grow their support, with many voters saying they have no opinion of either man. Northam had a 38 percent favorable and 16 percent unfavorable rating, with 46 percent of voters having no opinion of the current lieutenant governor. Gillespie had a 36 percent favorable and 20 percent unfavorable rating, with 44 percent having no opinion of the former Republican National Committee chair and counselor to President George W. Bush.
“The candidates still need to introduce themselves to voters and lay out their plans on key issues that Virginians want to hear them talk about,” Murray said, noting that only 3 percent of voters said they watched the campaign’s first debate, which was live-streamed Saturday from the Omni Homestead Resort in Hot Springs, Va.
Virginia voters were more optimistic about the future of their state than about the country. Just over half of voters said the commonwealth was headed in the right direction, while less than a third said the same about the nation.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who is barred by law from seeking consecutive terms, got a thumbs-up from voters, with 52 percent approving of his performance as governor while 37 percent disapproved.
Health care was cited most frequently by voters as a top concern, followed by jobs, the economy and education. Transportation and infrastructure, taxes and illegal immigration were each cited as most important by about 10 percent of voters.
The poll found regional differences in voter preferences. Northam had a 13-point lead over Gillespie in voter-rich Northern Virginia, 50 percent to 37 percent, and a nine-point lead in the eastern part of the state, 50 percent to 41 percent. The race is about even in central Virginia, with Gillespie at 43 percent and Northam at 41 percent. And Gillespie had an 18-point advantage in the western half of Virginia, 52 percent, to 34 percent for Northam.
Younger voters between 18 and 49 favored Northam by an 11-point margin, while Gillespie had a four-point lead among senior citizens. The poll also found a stark racial gap: Northam had a 50-point lead among nonwhite voters while Gillespie led white voters 52 percent to Northam’s 36 percent.
Monmouth pollsters surveyed 502 Virginia residents between Thursday and Sunday. The results have a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
Other polls have shown Northam leading Gillespie in a general election.
He had a eight-point lead in a Quinnipiac University survey taken in the days after the June 13 primary, while a hypothetical matchup polled by The Washington Post and George Mason University in May gave Northam a nine-point edge.