There are a lot of reasons that Democrats feel as though they should win the seat. There’s the fact that Hillary Clinton won the state of Virginia by 5.3 points last November. There’s the Democrats’ ongoing overperformance in Republican-held seats during federal and state special elections this year — often not enough to win the seat, but a substantial performance over how they’d done in the past. This, of course, is often attributed to the unpopularity of President Trump, meaning that Northam might be expected to do better than Clinton, not worse.
It’s worth noting, though, that Northam’s led in nearly every poll that’s been conducted over the past two weeks. Of the past 15 polls, Gillespie’s led in one, and two have shown a tie. In every other survey, Northam leads.
For interested Democrats, it’s easy to dip into second-order worrying about the state of the race. After all, we saw state polls last year that showed Clinton beating Trump in Wisconsin, etc. — but she didn’t. Can Northam’s lead here be trusted?
In lieu of litigating why and how the above polls might be in conflict, we leave that to our polling experts, who’ve already taken a pass at the subject. One short version of the question is that the results depend on who is expected to turn out to vote. Those who say they’re definitely going to vote back Northam by a wide margin; those who actually did vote in the state in 2013 back him narrowly. Who will actually turn out? We will see.
(MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki contextualizes another question about the polls, which in 2014 showed Gillespie losing badly to Sen. Mark R. Warner in a race Warner barely won. But then, Kornacki points out, Warner was expected to win but by such a wide margin that there wasn’t much polling in the last week of the race.)
So polls show that Northam is likely to win, but also that the race may be tighter than last November. That sets the stage for another interpretation of Tuesday’s results that has Democrats spooked.
Let’s say that the final result of the contest is something less than a five-point victory for Northam. Republicans will likely claim victory, even if Gillespie loses, given that Northam will have fared worse than Clinton even while Gillespie faced Trumpian head winds. Let’s also set aside whether that perception is valid.
The question will be: How’d Gillespie do it? And the answer that will be cited is: He embraced Trump’s campaign rhetoric.
In the Republican primary, Gillespie faced Corey Stewart. Stewart’s campaign, like Trump’s last year, was focused on the purported threat of illegal immigration and defense of Confederate monuments. Gillespie was expected to win fairly easily, but Stewart nearly pulled off the upset. That spurred calls for Gillespie to embrace what Stewart had advocated.
In the general, Gillespie’s picked up much of Stewart’s rhetoric, to Stewart’s delight. The Post editorial board has repeatedly bashed Gillespie’s campaign rhetoric, which has been heavily laced with the issues of sanctuary cities (which don’t exist in Virginia), immigration and, of late, protests at NFL games. That’s the fear of Democrats: That this rhetoric might actually be an effective way of overperforming in elections — or winning them.
This tactic isn’t restricted to Gillespie in this year’s elections. Will Jordan of GlobalStrategyGroup has been collecting examples of other Republican campaigns being bolstered by Trump-style rhetoric.
Gillespie’s race is merely the most-watched iteration of an attempt to apply Trumpism more broadly.
That’s the Democrats’ specific freakout about Virginia on Tuesday. Sure, they want — need? — to hold the governor’s mansion in Virginia. But they also don’t want the way they lost to reinforce a brand of politics that seemed as though would be unacceptable before last year’s presidential election.
In that fear, they have unexpected allies: Republicans who themselves dislike Trump’s tactics. Until the general election, that group seemed as though it likely included a former adviser to President George W. Bush who’d once chaired the Republican Party in Virginia named Ed Gillespie.
At this point, it clearly doesn’t.