Virginia gubernatorial contender Ralph Northam and other Democrats in statewide contests are leading their GOP opponents six weeks before Election Day, according to a new survey of likely voters.
The poll released Monday by the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University found Northam had the support of 47 percent of voters while Republican Ed Gillespie had 41 percent. Libertarian Cliff Hyra claimed 4 percent of the vote, and another 8 percent of voters were undecided.
It's the latest in a series of polls to find Northam with a slight lead or in a dead heat with Gillespie ahead of the Nov. 7 contest.
The Wason poll found Northam had double-digit leads in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, heavily populated, urban areas that have been key to Democratic victories in recent statewide contests. Gillespie had a slight edge among voters in rural southern and southwestern Virginia and an eight-point lead in the Richmond/central Virginia area.
Northam leads Gillespie among women and voters under 45, while Gillespie outpaces Northam among men. Each man has the clear support of his party's base, and they evenly split independents, 38 percent to 38 percent.
"Northam is doing well where he needs to do well," said Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center. "A Democratic plus-11 advantage in Northern Virginia and plus-20 in Hampton Roads are hard for a Republican to overcome in the rest of the state."
Northam, the state's lieutenant governor, is a pediatric neurologist who served two terms in the state Senate. Gillespie, the GOP's unsuccessful 2014 nominee for U.S. Senate, is a longtime Republican political operative who served as a counselor to President George W. Bush and as chairman of the Republican National Committee. The man they're competing to succeed, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), is prohibited by the state's constitution from seeking a second consecutive term.
Voters in the new poll said their top concern is improving K-12 education, an issue that has been mostly drowned out as the candidates have sparred over hot-button issues, including Confederate statues, tax cuts and immigration. Northam has accused Gillespie in several commercials of trying to cut school funding, which Gillespie says is not true but Northam's campaign says is inevitable given the Republican's proposal for tax cuts.
A third of all voters polled said education is the most important issue the next governor should address. About 40 percent of Northam voters said education is their most important issue, while 40 percent of Gillespie voters listed cutting taxes as their top concern.
The Wason Center also polled down-ballot races.
In the race for lieutenant governor, Democratic attorney Justin Fairfax led Republican state Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (Fauquier) by a 46-to-42 margin.
Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) had the support of 47 percent of likely voters in his bid for a second term, while his opponent John Adams had 40 percent.
In a generic test for House of Delegates seats, voters preferred Democrats by a 10-point margin. Republicans control the chamber by a 66-to-34 margin, and all 100 seats are on the ballot in November.
Between Sept. 12 and Sept. 22, pollsters surveyed 776 voters who have cast ballots in recent statewide elections and said they plan to vote. The results have a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.