Virginians head to the polls Tuesday to choose a new governor in a neck-and-neck race that began as a genteel affair but devolved into an intense battle that mimics the country’s deep partisan divide.
And the political world is watching the results from Virginia for clues about the national political landscape in the Trump era and a hint of what may come in next year’s midterms.
The contest has drawn record spending for the three statewide contests — governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general — and much of it is coming from outside groups eager to claim victory in Virginia. In addition, all 100 House of Delegates seats are on the ballot.
Campaigns for Republican Ed Gillespie and Democrat Ralph Northam say they are doubling and in some cases tripling the number of doors they’ve knocked on, homes they’ve called and text messages they’ve sent compared with the campaigns at this point in the 2013 governor’s race.
For voters still trying to get caught up to speed on the candidates and the issues, here’s a rundown.
Republican Ed Gillespie
At 56, Gillespie is a longtime, behind-the-scenes GOP operative trying to break into elective office. The son of an Irish immigrant and raised in New Jersey, Gillespie came to the Washington region to attend Catholic University and was drawn into the world of politics.
He worked his way up from a parking lot attendant at the U.S. Senate to a top strategist for House Republicans, as well as chairman of the Republican National Committee and White House counselor during the George W. Bush administration. Gillespie is known as a savvy communicator with a strong handle on policy matters. He also has made millions as a lobbyist and consultant between political stints and came close to unseating Sen. Mark R. Warner (D) in 2014.
He’s a 58-year-old pediatric neurologist who has served as the state’s lieutenant governor since 2014. Born and raised in Virginia’s rural Eastern Shore, Northam attended Virginia Military Institute, treated wounded soldiers as an Army doctor during Operation Desert Storm and returned home to start a successful medical practice.
His biography made him a prime target for both parties’ recruitment efforts, and he successfully ran as a conservative Democrat for state Senate in 2007. He has developed a reputation as a champion for abortion rights with a passion for health-care issues, and has followed the party’s leftward drift since taking office.
He’s a 34-year-old patent attorney in the Richmond suburbs making his first run for elective office.
Hyra is running on a message of social tolerance, limited government and opposing overreach by the Trump administration. He has been running in the low single digits in polls and has relatively little campaign cash, and he hasn’t been invited to debates. But his message may sell to those dissatisfied by the two-party system and tip the scales in what is expected to be a close race. He also has called for his rivals to stop their negative ad blitz and end the campaign on a positive note.
THE GOVERNOR’S JOB
Virginia is unique among states in that it bars governors from serving consecutive terms, meaning whoever wins Tuesday is a lame duck as soon as he gives his victory speech.
But a governor can get a lot done in four years. The state's General Assembly is controlled by Republicans, barring a monumental upset that neither party expects in House of Delegates races. Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) set a record for vetoes, and Northam vowed to continue to be a backstop against hard-right GOP legislation. Gillespie has promised to sign bills that McAuliffe vetoed, including legislation defunding Planned Parenthood and a "Tim Tebow" bill to allow home-schoolers to play in public school sports leagues.
The next governor also has sway over national politics: He will have veto power of state and federal legislative maps drawn after the 2020 Census. That has implications for control of Congress.
Northam says the state economy has been heading in the right direction under McAuliffe with a 3.7 percent unemployment rate, one of the lowest in the country. He says his top priority would be filling middle-skill jobs by making community college and apprenticeships free for students seeking careers in high-demand fields, including cybersecurity and early-childhood education, if they commit to a year of paid public service. He also proposes a $15 minimum wage — which is opposed by the legislature — and a tax credit for small businesses that offer workers paid family leave. He wants to cut taxes on groceries for low-income Virginians and wants a bipartisan commission to design a broader tax overhaul.
Gillespie offers a harsher assessment of Virginia's economy, pointing to sluggish annual growth and uneven recovery across the state. He is proposing an across-the-board 10 percent cut in state income tax rates to stimulate economic growth, although it would be contingent on increasing state revenue to offset losses. As governor, he says he would focus on helping businesses grow, not just luring big companies to the state.
Both major-party candidates want to raise teacher pay and rework the Standards of Learning tests, although neither has a replacement plan. Gillespie wants to expand the number of charter schools, which are publicly funded schools that are operated privately. Northam wants more investment in traditional public schools. Northam is backed by teachers unions; Gillespie has financial backing from the family of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a champion of taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools.
The candidates sharply disagree about public funding for private schools. Gillespie supports education savings accounts that allow parents who pull their children from public schools to receive 90 percent of the state funding that would have been spent on their children. They would be able to use those tax dollars for private school tuition. Northam opposes such accounts as a drain on public school resources.
Northam, who volunteers his medical services each year at the RAM free care clinic in Wise County, supports expanding Medicaid to 400,000 Virginians, although the Republican-controlled legislature remains opposed. He opposes growing calls in his party for a single-payer health-care system but would support a state-run public option.
Gillespie opposes expanding Medicaid to low-income Virginians. In lieu of federal action, Gillespie says Virginia should create an interstate compact to allow insurance companies to sell across state lines.
One of Virginia's hottest environmental issues is the development of two natural gas pipelines that would run through southern Virginia. Gillespie supports them as important for industry and jobs. Northam says he'll support the pipelines if they pass regulatory review, disappointing environmentalists. Hyra, the libertarian, opposes the pipelines.
On climate change, Northam supports McAuliffe's order for state agencies to draw up regulations to limit carbon emissions and joining a state climate alliance as President Trump moves to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accords. Gillespie opposes both measures, although he thinks that there is ample evidence of climate change and that people contribute to it.
Northam is also the first Democratic candidate for governor to oppose offshore drilling, which Gillespie supports.
Although Northern Virginia has some of the worst traffic congestion in the country, the issue hasn’t gotten much attention in the governor’s race.
Northam and Gillespie support widening Route 66 and converting regular lanes to tolled express lanes on Interstates 395 and 95. They disagree on how to pay for projects. Northam supports a “floor” on the Northern Virginia gas tax to make sure revenue doesn’t plummet when gas prices fluctuate, and questions whether Gillespie’s tax cut plan would drain resources for roads. Gillespie says his tax plan is designed to phase in more slowly if funding for essential needs including education and transportation is threatened — and that he would support a “lock box” to prevent transportation funding from being diverted to other state needs.
Both agree that Metro should be overhauled before receiving additional funding and haven’t called for new tax revenue as the District’s government favors. But Northam explicitly favors a dedicated source of funding for the agency, a step that Gillespie has not taken.
Gillespie has sought to put MS-13 gang violence front and center in the race, and Republican legislative leaders said they’ll work with him to give $1.5 million to the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force. Northam hasn’t taken a position on increasing state funding for the gang task force but says Republicans should be fighting to preserve federal funding for anti-gang initiatives that are slated for cuts by the Trump administration.
Gillespie has also sought to link MS-13 gang violence to "sanctuary cities" — which don't exist in Virginia. Gillespie supports a preemptive ban; Northam says he would support a ban only if a jurisdiction declared itself a sanctuary.
Both support relaxing other criminal penalties — including raising the threshold for felony grand larceny from $200, one of the lowest in the country. Northam backs decriminalizing marijuana, while Gillespie supports no criminal charges for simple possession until the third offense.
Northam supports abortion rights, while Gillespie opposes the procedure except in cases of rape, incest and to save the mother’s life. Gillespie would sign legislation to ban abortion after 20 weeks that contains those exceptions, while Northam would not.
Northam supports additional gun-control measures, including the reinstatement of Virginia's "one-gun-a-month" law limiting purchases, as well as a ban on high-capacity magazines and assault weapons. He has an F rating from the National Rifle Association and support from several gun-control groups.
Gillespie, who has an A rating from the NRA, opposes any further restrictions on guns. Gillespie says he would rescind an executive order barring people from carrying guns in state government buildings and would be open to restricting "bump stocks" — the device used to accelerate gunfire in the Las Vegas massacre.
No Southern state has more Confederate statues than Virginia, and the state has struggled with its legacy. The issue became prominent in the governor’s race in August, when white nationalists marched in Charlottesville to defend a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee — an event that turned into a melee that left one person dead.
Northam initially said he thought Confederate monuments should be relocated from public spaces to museums but has since backpedaled and said he'd leave the decision up to localities. Gillespie supports preserving the statues with historical context, although he doesn't add that caveat in a campaign commercial airing in Southwest Virginia.
●Gillespie’s business consulting
Since his last political campaign in 2014, Gillespie has consulted for at least four major corporations with interests in Virginia. As governor, he would face decisions where the public’s interest could conflict with the interests of companies that paid him and his firm millions.
●Northam’s financial holdings
Since taking office, Northam expanded his financial portfolio to include stock in companies doing extensive work in Virginia, and whose values could be affected by decisions he makes as governor. The Democrat says he'd address potential conflicts by placing his investments in a blind trust.
HOW TO VOTE
Polls are open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., and voters must present photo identification. The registration deadline has passed.
Registration status and the location of polling places can be confirmed by contacting the Virginia Department of Elections at elections.virginia.gov.