Northam v. Gillespie race reveals a Virginia in flux, not a read on Trump’s term so far: professors tell BLP

Democrat Lt. Gov. Ralph S. Northam (File photo) and Republican Edward W. Gillespie (File photo)

Three Virginia political science professors told Big League Politics Tuesday’s gubernatorial election between Republican Edward W. Gillespie and Democrat Lt. Gov. Ralph S. Northam, gives them a read on the commonwealth’s shifting electorate and the political fortunes of President Donald J. Trump.

“Everybody wants to know a year into the Trump presidency how the two political parties are doing,” said University of Virginia Professor of Politics John M. Owen IV.

University of Richmond Professor of Political Science Daniel J. Palazzolo said he agreed with Owen.

“The baseline assumption is that people are looking at this race as an indicator of the presidency,” Palazzolo said.

However, using the gubernatorial race as a barometer to measure Trump’s success may be reading too much into the race, he said.

“Gillespie has been pretty good at distancing himself from Trump without losing the base,” he said. “He’s aligned himself with Trump on immigration, but distanced himself from Trump’s personality.”

Palazzolo said Gillespie’s strategy of agreeing with Trump, but not being agreeable with Trump makes is difficult for the vote to a clear reflection of how the president is doing.

It is important to remember, too, that regardless of the candidate, Virginia Republicans have a better record at turning out for this off-cycle election, he said.

The underlying subtext of the race is the shift in voter demographics that Virginia has seen over the past two decades, Owen said.

“The conventional wisdom is that Virginia is moving from the red column to the purple column as people from other places around the country, generally more socially liberal, are moving into the Northern Virginia suburbs,” he said.

“If Gillespie wins, it will fly in the face of how Virginia has recently changed from red to purple to light blue,” said Professor Richard Dagger, the chairman of the Department of Political Science at the University of Richmond.

Dagger said he also sees this shift in the electorate as the large influx of Democrats moving into Northern Virginia.

Palazzolo said the anti-Trump sentiment could be enough to push Northam across the finish line, but that Gillespie is not to be underestimated.

The polls in Virginia will be open Tuesday from 6 a.m. through 7 p.m.

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