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Virginia’s guv election won’t be a reliable harbinger, but it might tell us something useful

Virginia has remained a swing state, having given its electoral votes to the winner in the previous four elections, twice to Barack Obama, twice to George W. Bush.

Republican candidate for Governor of Virginia Ed Gillespie speaking during a campaign event at the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce on Oct. 26.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

There is a “silly season” every quadrennium in American politics, which can also be called the “harbinger” season. (I put “silly season” in quotes, because when I decided to use it in the lede I looked it up and discovered that it is also called the “cucumber time,” which is just too silly — or too cucumber — not to share.)

One particular silly/harbinger season is happening now, just before the gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia. Because, by a quirk in the crazy-quilt we call the U.S. political system, those two states (and only those two states) happen to hold their odd-year gubernatorial elections in the first November after the last presidential election.

The politically obsessed among us (I plead guilty) usually try to attach far more significance to these elections than they would otherwise deserve by calling them a “harbinger” of the political future direction of the whole country.

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Both Virginia and New Jersey qualify, sort of, as political swing states, at least in their choice of governors over recent history. (Virginia’s last 12 governors were six Dems and six Repubs. New Jersey has had a stronger lean toward Democratic dominance, but retiring Republican Gov. Chris Christie has won the last two races.)

I mock the “harbinger” stuff, just to annoy a friend of mine, but there is little historical basis to believe that they portend the partisan/political future of the nation. Tip O’Neill’s oft-cited aphorism that “all politics are local” is an exaggeration. And there are certainly national political winds that blow into state races. But a hard-headed, clear-eyed look at the history would tell you not to believe in the harbinger power of New Jersey and Virginia to foretell what will happen in future, more nationalized cycles.

Nonetheless: The Democratic nominee leads in both races. According to the polls, New Jersey will be a blowout for the Dem nominee Phil Murphy, while the former solid lead enjoyed by Virginia Dem Ralph Northam over Republican (and former RNC Chair) Ed Gillespie has shrunk to within the margin of error. Want numbers? Real Clear Politics said, as of Friday:

The final round of polls is trickling in for the two gubernatorial elections next Tuesday. In New Jersey, the RealClearPolitics poll average shows Democrat Phil Murphy with a commanding 15.5 percentage-point lead over Republican Kim Guadagno. In Virginia, Democrat Ralph Northam’s lead over Republican Ed Gillespie has shrunk to 3.6 points.

Which brings me to the Northam attack ad that set off this strange tone poem (the first in history to get the words “harbinger” and “cucumber” into the same paragraph). It makes only one point, and that point is that Republican nominee Gillespie “stands with Trump.” It doesn’t even bother to mention any specific ways in which Gillespie stands with Trump, although I’m sure there are plenty.

Virginia was carried in 2016 by the Clinton/Kaine ticket by five percentage points. Not a blowout, not a squeaker. The fact that Hillary Clinton had Virginian Tim Kaine as her running mate may have been a factor. It was the only southern state carried by the Dem ticket, although Virginia’s full status as a “southern state” has been undermined by the enormous growth over recent decades of the Washington, D.C., suburbs.

Still, Virginia has remained at least a swing state, having given its electoral votes to the winner in the previous four elections, twice to Barack Obama, twice to George W. Bush. So, the fact that in an ad on the weekend before the election, the Democratic nominee decided to attack his Republican opponent for nothing more than agreeing with the incumbent Republican president struck me as significant.

The 30-second ad, which you can view here, ends: “Ed Gillespie won’t stand up to Donald Trump — because Ed stands right next to him.”

Trump’s most recent approval rating in Virginia was a stinking 35 percent. If Northam wins, it won’t be a reliable harbinger of the 2018 midterms, but it will tell us a fair bit about the opportunity for Democrats in 2018 to run by tying their Republican opponents to Trump.