Voters go to the polls Tuesday to select the next governor of Virginia, a decision that observers around the country are closely watching for larger meaning about the political landscape in the era of President Trump.
Republican Ed Gillespie faces off against Democrat Ralph Northam in a neck-and-neck race to the governor’s mansion. Gillespie, a former lobbyist and longtime GOP strategist, and Northam, a pediatric neurologist who is the sitting lieutenant governor, both said they were focused on state issues. But Trump and national divides over culture and racism deeply permeated their campaigns.
A win by Northam would be a major boost nationally for Democrats eager to be seen as rebuilding their party and charting a course back to power.
A victory by Gillespie, on the other hand, would demoralize Democrats, show that Trump is not a liability in swing states and provide a template for other Republicans in 2018. A win would almost certainly give Republicans full control of the state government, and the next governor will oversee redistricting, which could cement that control for years.
Libertarian Cliff Hyra is also on the ballot but is drawing in the low single digits in polls.
Several fundamentals are in Northam’s favor: Virginia almost always elects a governor of the opposite party from the president, and Trump is deeply unpopular in the state.
But Gillespie, an establishment Republican of the stripe typically reviled by populists who support Trump, has made inroads among Trump voters by attacking illegal immigration and vowing to protect Confederate monuments. From Asia on Monday, the president tweeted, “The state of Virginia economy, under Democrat rule, has been terrible. If you vote Ed Gillespie tomorrow, it will come roaring back!”
Virginia has a 3.7 percent unemployment rate, one of the lowest in the country. But the state’s recovery from the 2008 recession has been uneven.
The results Tuesday will hinge on turnout, which has been slipping steadily in Virginia’s off-year gubernatorial elections from a high of 61.1 percent in 1993 to just 43 percent in 2013.
But this year may be different. The contest has set a record for absentee voting, with more than 147,000 absentee votes cast as of Friday night.
Both Republicans and Democrats report a doubling or tripling of the efforts of campaign workers to reach voters and urge them to cast ballots, when compared against four years ago.
The campaigns are also on track to spend a record amount of money in the statewide races for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general, much of it coming from groups outside Virginia battling for a win with national implications.
Voters will also choose between Republican state Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel and Democrat Justin Fairfax for lieutenant governor and between Republican John Adams and Democratic incumbent Mark Herring for attorney general.
In addition, all 100 House of Delegates seats are on the ballot.
And voters in Arlington will choose candidates for the county and school boards.
Polls are open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Voters must bring a photo ID, and it can be used up to one year after expiration. Acceptable forms include: Virginia driver’s license, Virginia DMV-issued photo identification, U.S. passport, employer-issued photo ID, student photo ID issued by a school, college or university in Virginia, other U.S. or Virginia government-issued ID, tribal enrollment or other tribal photo ID, and the Virginia Voter photo ID card.
Those without an ID can go to the nearest voter registration office to get a free voter photo ID, even on Election Day. People who appear at polling places without acceptable photo ID can vote with a provisional ballot.