| Daily Data Point: What the Virginia Governor Race May Portend for 2018
by David Byler People often complain about how frequently the U.S. holds elections. That’s understandable. Only six months after a national election in which 60 percent of eligible adults cast their ballots, voters in Kansas, Georgia and California have had to vote to fill congressional seats. And in the coming months, South Carolina, Virginia, New Jersey, Georgia and Montana will fill major positions — either by sending new members to Congress or new governors to state capitals.
But there are benefits to the never-ending stream of races. Frequent elections (along with polls) help politicians figure out if the American people approve of what they’re doing. If a new president overreaches early on (as often happens) then voters can push back in off-year and midterm contests. The primary fights for these offices can also reveal important splits within a party before they materialize on the national level. And in 2017, the most important electoral gut check will probably come from Virginia. The Old Dominion is the only swing state that holds a gubernatorial election in an off year, and there are contested primaries on both sides. Once the dust settles from string of special House elections from now till late June, many journalists, activists and political donors will likely start to focus on the race there. So it’s worth asking — how should we interpret what’s happening in Virginia? There’s more than one way to tackle this question, and the governor’s race is multifaceted. So I’ll keep it simple and run through three narratives (some of which have already been floated elsewhere in the press), assess how accurate they are and thus get a handle on how to interpret the eventual results. So Far, the Democratic Primary Isn’t Round 2 of Clinton vs. Sanders At first glance, the Democratic gubernatorial primary looks a bit like the Democratic presidential primary of 2016. Ralph Northam, Virginia’s lieutenant governor, declared his candidacy early and gained the support of much of the state establishment. But Tom Periello, a highly progressive former congressman, unexpectedly decided to run as an outsider and is trying to squeeze Northam from the left. And while there’s a real insider-outsider dynamic in this race, the analogy is far from perfect. First, Ralph Northam isn’t Hillary Clinton. Clinton worked in politics or policy for the majority of adult her life and has always been a Democrat. Her ideology changed over time, but her stances mostly reflected those of the typical Democrat. She is also, obviously, a woman. Northam’s biography doesn’t match up. He spent most of his life serving in the military or practicing medicine (sometimes simultaneously). He voted for George W. Bush twice before being elected as a Democrat to the state Senate in 2007. And in 2009, Republicans attempted to get him to switch parties in an effort to tip the Senate majority in their favor. Northam rejected those entreaties, was re-elected in 2011 and has been serving as lieutenant governor since 2013. This contrast isn’t meant as a dig at either candidate. Both are clearly qualified for the offices they’ve sought. But the differences in their personal and ideological history are obvious…
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