Editor’s Note: James A. Barnes is a member of the CNN Decision Desk and co-author of the 2018 Almanac of American Politics.
Democrat Ralph Northam’s convincing 54%-45% victory over Republican Ed Gillespie in the Virginia governor’s race underscores the challenge that many GOP candidates may face in urban and suburban communities in the midterm elections next year, especially if President Donald Trump’s popularity continues to sag.
According to a CNN exit poll of Virginia voters after they cast their ballots, nearly 3 out of 5 disapproved of the job that Trump is doing. That is almost identical to President Barack Obama’s negative standing among Virginia voters in 2014, when Gillespie, then the Republican nominee for Senate, came within 22,000 votes, less than a percentage point, of upsetting the popular Democratic incumbent, Mark Warner. With nearly all the precincts reporting, Gillespie lost to Northam by more than 232,000 votes.
Nowhere was the metropolitan advantage greater for Northam than in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington DC. Overall, the Democrat won nearly 68% of the vote, eclipsing the 64% mark set by Hillary Clinton in last year’s presidential race and easily exceeding the 57% that Warner captured in 2014 and the 58% that Democrat Terry McAuliffe scored when he won the 2013 gubernatorial contest. Moreover, turnout rose in Northern Virginia in relation to the rest of the state: the region, which includes Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William Counties, and the Democratic bastion of Alexandria, accounted for roughly 30% of the statewide vote, up from 28% in the 2013 governor’s race. Gillespie’s 31% showing in Fairfax, the largest vote-producing county in the state, is not only less than his 40% tally in 2014, it’s less than the 36% that Republican Ken Cuccinelli, a conservative hard-liner, garnered in the 2013 gubernatorial contest.
In Loudoun and Prince William, Northam bested Gillespie, 60%-40% and 61%-38%, respectively. In his 2014 Senate race, Gillespie narrowly won Loudoun with 49% of the vote and was bested by Warner in Prince William by only 50-48%. Even in the distant exurbs of Stafford County, which Virginia Republicans have won by commanding margins in recent years, Gillespie only edged Northam by 52%-47%.
But the blue tide in the suburbs and exurbs extended well beyond the Capital Beltway. In the Hampton Roads area, which includes Norfolk and Virginia Beach, Northam defeated Gillespie 60%-38%, again besting the margins scored by Clinton, Warner and McAuliffe. Northam became the first top statewide Democratic candidate to carry both of the suburban battlegrounds of Chesapeake and Virginia Beach in a non-presidential year (when Democratic turnout traditionally ebbs) since Democrat Tim Kaine captured the governorship in 2005.
Even in metro areas in rural parts of the state, Northam performed exceeding well. In the city of Harrisonburg, in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley and in the middle of ruby red Rockingham County, Northam won 64%-35%. And while Harrisonburg is Democratic turf, it saw the largest Democratic gain on a percentage point basis (11.2) of any city or county in Virginia over the party’s performance in the 2013 governor’s race. And in Chesterfield County, the Republican suburbs of Richmond that GOP candidates usually carry with ease, Gillespie barely won by less than 300 votes.
Gillespie did perform well in rural counties in western and central Virginia, but even here there was a downside. In the 15 counties where Democratic percentages fell the most from the 2013 governor’s race, all in the mountain west region of the state, only one, Lee County in the extreme southwest corner of the state, saw its total vote tally noticeably rise from 2013. In all the rest, the total vote was flat or fell slightly. This was one election where rural voters could not save a Republican who was hemorrhaging votes all across the metropolitan landscape.