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

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

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.

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.

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/06/2017 - 09:32 am.

    Not to be too pessimistic

    …but the operative word in the column’s title seems to me to be ‘might.” Saying in the last paragraph that “…it will tell us a fair bit about the opportunity for Democrats in 2018 to run by tying their Republican opponents to Trump” strikes me as overstatement. Such a Democratic victory **might** tell us a fair bit about the value to Democrats of tying their opponents to the Current Occupant, but I don’t think it’s a slam-dunk.

    It ought to be, but I don’t think it is. We still have commentators here on MinnPost who, despite all the evidence to the contrary, still view the Current Occupant as a capable leader, role model and political savant, and if there are MinnPost readers who remain firmly in the Current Occupant’s camp, I’d guess there are many others who’ve never heard of MinnPost, but who are equally convinced of the Current Occupant’s intelligence, fair-mindedness, and other qualities that, at least in their minds, make for a capable, even brilliant, president.

    • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 11/06/2017 - 10:27 pm.

      “We still have commentators here on MinnPost who, despite all the evidence to the contrary, still view the Current Occupant as a capable leader, role model and political savant,” I am afraid that you misunderstood everything that commenters who disagree with liberal views are saying here. I highly doubt that any of them view Trump as a role model or anything even close to that. They just disagree with liberal approach to life on one hand and are upset when they see people criticizing Trump for the things those people easily forgave to Obama and Clinton…

  2. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 11/06/2017 - 10:23 am.


    The basic problem is that Democratic voters don’t turnout, which is why Gillespie is now the clear favorite despite trailing in the polls. The vanity and self absorption of the Democratic voter is often truly amazing to behold. Too often, it seems we don’t turn out, if the quiche isn’t served at exactly the right temperature. But that doesn’t prevent us from whining a lot about negative outcomes.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 11/06/2017 - 12:38 pm.

      How About A Little Leftie Compassion?

      Leftie voters are more likely to be on the margins of society. The single mom with two kids working retail; her work schedule can change on a moments notice. The elderly and the infirm. When you’re struggling to get from one day to the next, immediate survival is your rightful goal. Pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps is a difficult task when one cannot afford footwear.

      Now add to that bogus voter suppression laws that make it even harder to vote.

      State law requires employers to allow you time off to vote without loss of pay. For those at the bottom rungs of the ladder, standing up to one’s employer is not something easily risked, nor is one well versed or practiced in such ways.

    • Submitted by edward sheehy on 11/06/2017 - 12:42 pm.

      Tune in tomorrow for the quiche report

      I am a Virginian living in Minnesota. A bit premature to call the race based on the temperature of the quiche. Let’s see the results then decide the reason. Personally, I think Northern Virginia will get the Dem over the top.

  3. Submitted by Garth Taylor on 11/07/2017 - 05:07 am.

    Are the Democrats for anything relevant yet?

    Dems can’t be the party of Trump Stinks. It won’t work as the basis of a successful campaign because everybody already knows it. The relevant harbinger is whether the Democrats have found some ideas to run on that are relevant to the voters. In current polls, Hillary still loses to PGrabber. To win, a Democrat will have to be perceived as sincere, opposed to the Wall Street / Free Trade agenda, and engaged on issues that are relevant to voters.

  4. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 11/07/2017 - 10:01 am.


    It’s not that easy. What Minnesota Democrats are asking all the time is “What do Minnesotans want?” I have asked my elected representatives that many, many times. And there are lots of answers to that, things that Democrats running for office do in fact support. There just isn’t a legislative laundry list of things out there people in Greater Minnesota want that Democrats don’t support. There are lots of things that are relevant to voters that we have worked to provide. The problem is that most of them seem pretty dull, lefsa in comparison to Republican red meat.

    Big issues Republican ran on include the Senate Office Building and gay marriage. How relevant are these issues to most Minnesotans? Not even I have visited the senate office building, and for the life of me, I have never understood why I should be concerned about gender diversity or lacke thereof in someone else’s marriage. But as irrelevant as they may be, those are the issues that seemed to move Minnesota voters.

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