RICHMOND, Va. — The race for Virginia governor on Tuesday night wasn’t very close. And Republicans have Donald Trump to blame for it.
In key areas of Virginia Republicanism — the suburbs of Richmond and the exurbs of Washington, DC — Republican Ed Gillespie ran far behind recent past GOP gubernatorial nominees and even behind Trump himself.
That poor performance seemed to come in spite of the fact that Gillespie’s profile — a former Republican National Committee Chairman and card-carrying member of the Republican establishment — seemed to be more ready-made for voters in those critical regions of the commonwealth than past Republican nominees. And in spite of the fact that Ralph Northam, the Democratic nominee, hailed from the sparsely populated eastern shore of Virginia and had a southern accent that some Democrats worried wouldn’t play well in northern Virginia.
So, why? Why did a race that most polling suggested was tightening — in Gillespie’s favor — wind up not being all that close? The obvious — and right — answer is Trump.
The exit polls bear that out. Trump’s approval rating among Virginia voters was just 42% as compared to a dispproval rating of 58%. Even more importantly, of the 50% of Virginians who said that Trump was a major factor in their vote in the 2017, twice as many said they wanted to send a signal of opposition to the President as said they wanted to send a signal of support.
The story of the race — and Trump’s drag on Gillespie — can be told in the vote count in two counties: Loudoun and Chesterfield.
Loudoun, an exurban county west of Washington, has grown rapidly over the past decade — and as it has, it’s moved away from its strong conservative roots. Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe won Loudoun county by 5 points in his 2013 victory — about 4,000 votes. In 2009, Republican Bob McDonnell carried Loudoun by 15,000 votes. ‘
Democrats were hoping Northam might be able to match — or slightly improve on McAuliffe’s showing from four years ago. With almost every precinct reporting, Northam had a massive 20 point margin (more than 17,000 votes). That’s absolutely stunning.
Chesterfield, which includes the city of Richmond, is the ancestral home of country club Republicanism in the Old Dominion. Business conservatives dominate. Gentility reigns. It is not then Trump territory.
Hillary Clinton lost Chesterfield by only 4,000 votes in 2016, a massive improvement over Barack Obama, who lost the county by almost four times that amount in 2012. With nearly all votes counted in Chesterfield, Northam was running less than 1,000 votes behind Gillespie.
“This is where we will see if Trump is dragging Gillespie down,” a Democratic consultant told me earlier Tuesday. “Are Never-Trumpers now Never-GOPers?
The answer — at least in Chesterfield on Tuesday night — was a resounding “yes.”
Trump, of course, distanced himself from the loss almost immediately. He tweeted just after 8:40 p.m. ET:
“Ed Gillespie worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for. Don’t forget, Republicans won 4 out of 4 House seats, and with the economy doing record numbers, we will continue to win, even bigger than before!”
And, there will be a segment of Republicans who believe it because, well, they believe anything and everything Trump says. But that won’t make it true.
But, the simple fact when you look at turnout patterns in places like Chesterfield and Loudoun, is that the lots of Virginia voters — including some decent chunk of establishment GOPers — jumped at the chance to send Trump a very clear message that they didn’t like what he was selling. They didn’t like it at all.
That is a message that Republicans in targeted districts and states will get loud and clear from Tuesday’s vote in Virginia. The problem they will face is this: Trump and Trumpism is clearly a problem with general electorates but the President remains an extremely popular figure within the most conservative elements of the GOP, who tend to decide primary nominations. (Remember that Gillespie almost loss his primary against a little regarded GOP opponent who ran as a Trump clone.)
That conundrum is going to be hugely problematic for Republicans as they try to navigate between primaries over the next 10 months and the 2018 general election. To win the GOP nomination, you have to hew as closely to Trump as possible. But, once you win, that close connection — or even a not-so-close connection — can doom you among swing voters.
Square peg. Round circle.
Analysis by Chris Cillizza, CNN Editor-at-large