Northam and Gillespie are both establishment figures who have tried, somewhat awkwardly, to find their way in a political environment upended by the 2016 election.
Gillespie is a former Republican National Committee chairman, who has nevertheless taken a page out of the Trump playbook by casting himself as a law-and-order candidate and attacking his opponent over the issue of sanctuary cities, as well as vowing to preserve Confederate monuments. But Gillespie rarely invokes Trump’s name, apparently making a gamble that he can imitate some of the president’s stances without cozying up to him directly. Trump, for his part, has been tweeting his support of Gillespie and urged voters to support the Republican candidate on Tuesday.
Northam is also inescapably a part of the political establishment as the current Democratic lieutenant governor. During the primary campaign, he channeled the anger felt by many Democratic voters toward Trump by calling him a “narcissistic maniac,” only to vow during the general election that if Trump is “helping Virginia,” he will work with him.
If Gillespie wins the race, the outcome is likely to encourage Republican candidates running in future races to adopt Trump-style rhetoric, even in states that aren’t deep red.
“Gillespie has run a campaign that seems to have worked, or at least put him in a position where he could win ... This is evidence of the further Trump-ification of the Republican Party,” said Geoffrey Skelley of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “The approach that Trump took is one that other Republicans are going to model themselves off of.”
Whatever happens in Virginia, Democrats are expected to notch at least one victory on Tuesday. Democrat Phil Murphy has a comfortable lead in polling over Republican Kim Guadagno in the New Jersey governor’s race to replace Republican Chris Christie.
Still, that won’t be much consolation for a party that has suffered a string of high-profile defeats after losing the White House in 2016. So far, Democratic candidates have lost to Republicans in 2017 special-election congressional races in Kansas, Georgia, Montana, and South Carolina.
A loss in Virginia would not be as easy for the party to explain away as earlier defeats this year in special elections. In Kansas, Georgia, Montana, and South Carolina, Democrats lost, but they were running in conservative districts and battling it out for seats that had been under Republican control.
Not only are Democrats shut out of power in Washington, the party’s power has also severely eroded at the state level, losing hundreds of state-legislature seats while former President Obama was in office. When West Virginia Governor Jim Justice flipped parties from Democrat to Republican in August, the switch brought the number of Republican governorships up to 34 in the United States, and marked a record low for Democrats in their party’s control of governors’ mansions.