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In Off-Year Election, Virginia's Race For Governor Is High-Profile


Tomorrow is Election Day. It's an off year, so there aren't a whole lot of contests. The highest profile one, though, is in Virginia where the governor's mansion is up for grabs. Democrat Ralph Northam and Republican Ed Gillespie are in a close race. NPR's Sarah McCammon has been covering it, and she joins us now from Virginia Beach. Hey, Sarah.


R. MARTIN: What's going on in Virginia? Set up the race for us.

MCCAMMON: Yeah. Well, the race here is seen as a bellwether quite often. And while that might be a little bit overplayed - in part because Virginia is right next to D.C., so the national media pay attention - there is some merit to that. For example, Virginia's been a swing state in recent years, tends to elect governors from the opposite party of the sitting president. So it'll be interesting to see if that pattern continues. There are some good signs for Democrats. The state's demographics have been moving in their favor. Virginia was the only southern state to vote for Hillary Clinton last year. Obama won it twice. The current governor and senators are both Democrats - are all Democrats.

But at the same time, Rachel, Republicans dominate the legislature, and this is an off year, which tends to be better for Republicans. Recent polls, at least some of them, suggest independents are fairly split between the two candidates. So they're both really trying to close the deal now.

R. MARTIN: So you said that in some ways it can be viewed as a bellwether. How so? What's at stake in this race?

MCCAMMON: So a lot of people are looking to the Virginia governor's race really for a snapshot of what's happening inside each of the major parties.

R. MARTIN: Right.

MCCAMMON: Right. Both are reacting to the 2016 campaign, which, as we know, exposed some big divides not only in the country as a whole but also within the major parties. So the race is kind of seen as an indicator of how voters are responding to President Trump. I mean, he has low favorability ratings overall but still a lot of strong support among core Republicans. And it's also, Rachel, a chance for both Republicans and Democrats to test their messages ahead of 2018. Those midterms are going to be really important, and they want to get a sense of where the voters are at.

R. MARTIN: Yeah. So how are each of these candidates, each of their parties, how are they talking about President Trump?

MCCAMMON: Well, in various ways. So Republican Ed Gillespie went into this race seen as a moderate establishment candidate. He has really moved to the right, and that is partly because he faced a surprisingly strong challenge in the primary from a candidate named Corey Stewart who ran as a populist pro-Trump candidate and did far better than ever expected. Stewart's now running for Senate in 2018, and he recently told me he thinks President Trump has changed the GOP forever into a more populous party.

COREY STEWART: Candidates who embrace the president, candidates who are more populist and support the president's agenda will be successful. And those who refuse to change will eventually go the way of the dodo and disappear.

R. MARTIN: The dodo, wow.

MCCAMMON: And Gillespie - yeah. Gillespie seems to have embraced that. He has moved to the right, embraced some of the cultural themes that President Trump has emphasized. He's run ads focused on crimes committed by undocumented immigrants and expressed opposition to removing Confederate monuments.

R. MARTIN: Yeah. OK, so what about the Democrats? What does this race tell us about where they're at, where they're headed?

MCCAMMON: Well, Democrats have seemed to struggle a bit to focus their message. They're also talking about President Trump. The Democratic candidate, Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam, has framed the race as a referendum on Trump. But Democrats seem to be kind of split about how to capture some of the anti-Trump energy among liberal voters while still reaching out to those rural, white voters that Democrats have been so worried about. Northam's been trying to energize black voters and younger voters who are so important to Democrats. The question is whether he can turn out enough of those base voters in this off year.

R. MARTIN: NPR's Sarah McCammon in Virginia Beach. Thanks, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.