RICHMOND, Va. — The big-ticket race on the ballot Tuesday is in Virginia, where either Republican Ed Gillespie or Democrat Ralph Northam will be elected the next governor of the commonwealth.
Virginia has transformed from a solidly red state to a leaning blue one rapidly over the last decade. And most polling in the race gives Northam a small lead — although everyone agrees Gillespie has been closing fast amid a series of slip-ups by Northam’s side.
So where should you look to see who might be having the better night? I talked to a half-dozen smart Virginia political operatives — Democrats and Republicans — and asked them to pick a single county in the state that would best tell the tale of Gillespie vs. Northam.
Their picks — and their thoughts about those picks — are below.
Charlottesville — the site of the white supremacist violence over the summer — sits at the center of this central Virginia county. Thanks in no small part to the University of Virginia — and the community that has grown up around it — Albemarle is seen as the home of the liberals’ liberals in the state.
“A place that has become emblematic for all of Virginia’s past sins/transgressions and yet possesses one of its most stunning achievements,” said one Democratic insider. “(It’s) traditionally conservative and rural yet has that progressive center.”
Hillary Clinton won Albemarle by more than 14,000 votes over Donald Trump in 2016. Democrat Terry McAuliffe carried it by 6,500 votes over Republican Ken Cuccinelli in the 2013 governor’s race.
If liberals are fired up and ready to go — even for a candidate like Northam, who is not progressives’ first choice — you’ll see it in his margins in Albemarle.
This is a suburban — and conservative — county around the state capitol in Richmond. Democrats never win it but “the margins here matter — bigly,” according to a Democrat I spoke to.
Clinton lost it by less than 4,000 votes out of more than 176,000 cast. Former President Barack Obama lost the county by four times that many votes four years prior.
“This is where we will see if Trump is dragging Gillespie down,” said a Democratic consultant. “Are Never-Trumpers now Never-GOPers?”
Loudoun is a DC exurban county that has seen massive amounts of population growth over the past decade. Once reliably Republican, it has become much, much more Democrat-friendly in recent statewide races. But Gillespie, a northern Virginia resident and an establishment Republican, is seen a a candidate who can sell better in these areas than Trump. Gillespie has also heavily targeted his sanctuary city attacks on places like Loudoun.
Clinton won in Loudoun by 17 points in 2016. But McAuliffe only won the county by 5 points in his 2013 gubernatorial victory. And in 2009, Republican Bob McDonnell carried Loudoun by almost 15,000 votes on his way to a 17-point statewide win in the governor’s race.
“If we can win here by at least McAuliffe margins, (it) will show Gillespie failed and/or this is a light blue county,” said one Democrat. “If Gillespie wins by more than a couple thousand votes here that is good news,” responded a Republican strategist.
(One other interesting note: Loudoun is also hosting a hugely targeted state delegates race between incumbent John Bell, a Democrat, and Subba Kolla, a Republican.)
Nelson sits just south and west of Charlottesville.
As one Republican described it, the country “is an unusual mixture of retirees, hippies who escaped from the ‘big’ city of Charlottesville, and farmers/hunters.” There’s breweries, (Devil’s Backbone, Blue Mountain and Wild Wolf), a cidery (Bold Rock) and wineries (Afton Mountain, Veritas) in the county and a ski resort (Wintergreen).
In 2016, Trump won Nelson County by 5 points but got less than 50% (49%). Obama beat Mitt Romney in Nelson by 3 points in 2012 and also carried it in 2008. (Nelson is one of five counties Obama won twice and Trump carried in 2016. The others are Buckingham, Caroline, Essex and Westmoreland.)
Northam is from the eastern shore of Virginia (Accomack County) and there is some thinking in Democratic circles that his roots in that part of the state could help him run stronger in the population centers of Hampton Roads/Tidewater.
In 2013, McAuliffe lost Virginia Beach City by 2,000-ish votes to Cuccinelli while winning statewide by 3 percentage points. Clinton lost it by 8,000 votes while winning statewide by 5. If Northam can stay as close as McAuliffe — or even win in Virginia Beach City — it’s likely curtains for Gillespie’s hopes.