By Fenit Nirappil,
Every year is election year in Virginia, the state that tucks statewide and legislative races between federal contests. On Tuesday, voters will choose the Democratic and Republican nominees for governor and lieutenant governor, in addition to candidates for some House of Delegates seats.
The governor’s race is the marquee event. Virginia is one of just two states holding gubernatorial contests in 2017 (the other is New Jersey), and the Virginia race is drawing intense national interest as a harbinger of the 2018 midterms and a test of politics in the era of President Trump.
With so much happening in Washington, it is understandable if Virginians have been distracted from state races. As The Washington Post tagged along with canvassers recently, many voters said they were undecided and still needed to do their homework.
We want to help.
Here’s a primer on the race, plus resources to learn more about the candidates and choices:
Who are the candidates?
On the Democratic side, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam is competing against former congressman and onetime State Department envoy Tom Perriello.
On the Republican side are former GOP political operative Ed Gillespie; chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors Corey A. Stewart; and state Sen. Frank W. Wagner (Virginia Beach).
The Post sat down with all five candidates for wide-ranging on-camera interviews, and videos and transcripts are available.
What do the polls say?
The most recent public polling in the race was conducted in early May by The Post and George Mason University. It found that Gillespie had a comfortable lead over his two rivals and that the Democratic nominating contest was a neck-and-neck race.
Those results may be different now after both Democrats aired a barrage of ads across the state, with Northam outspending Perriello.
How do I vote?
Virginia is an open primary state, meaning anyone can choose either a Democratic or Republican ballot — but not both.
Polls are open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., and you must present photo identification. The registration deadline has passed.
You can find the location of your polling place here.
The Democratic race
● Northam is endorsed by every other statewide Democratic officer holder: Gov. Terry McAuliffe (who cannot serve consecutive terms under the state’s constitution), Attorney General Mark R. Herring, and U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine. Northam is also backed by every Democrat in the state legislature and three of the state’s four Democratic members of Congress (Rep. Gerald E. Connolly has stayed neutral).
He has also picked up support from a variety of progressive groups: NARAL and its Virginia affiliate, the National Education Association teachers’ union and its Virginia affiliate, a variety of gun control groups and Equality Virginia (an LGBT rights group).
● Perriello has attracted support from progressive leaders Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and their affiliated political organizations. He also has the support of top staffers from Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and 30 campaign and administration aides to former president Barack Obama.
In Virginia, Perriello has support from a few lower-profile elected officials including Ryan Sawyers, chairman of the Prince William County school board, several labor unions that praised Perriello’s opposition to the state’s “right-to-work” laws and Gold Star parents Khizr and Ghazala Khan. His opposition to two planned gas pipelines has also won him support from national environmental groups.
Differences on issues
Barring an upset Democratic takeover of the House of Delegates in November, the next governor will be dealing with a Republican legislature. In that environment, Democratic governors such as McAuliffe exert their influence through executive orders, appointments to state boards and commissions, vetoes of legislation and economic development deals.
Perriello and Northam largely agree on policy priorities. Here are few areas where they disagree:
● Gas pipelines: Perriello has opposed two natural gas pipelines planned to cross south and southwestern Virginia. Northam has declined to take a firm position on the pipelines beyond saying they should be subject to strict environmental review, and he supports an approach taken by state water-quality regulators that some environmentalists say does not go far enough.
● Taxes: Perriello has proposed a tax increase on the wealthy and smaller spending cuts that his campaign estimates would bring in $1.1 billion of additional annual revenue to fund a host of social programs. Northam has instead called for a commission to review the state’s tax policies but says he wants to cut grocery taxes paid by the poor.
● Higher education: Both candidates support some form of free higher education. Perriello’s proposal is more expansive and expensive: It would fund two-year community college, apprenticeships or trade school. Northam’s plan is more targeted: It would chip in money, after other forms of aid are exhausted, for community college and workforce training in high-need fields such as clean energy and computer programming, and would require recipients of student aid to do a year of public service.
● Campaign finance: Perriello has refused to accept contributions from energy giant Dominion, which is Virginia’s largest political donor, and has called for public financing of elections. Northam has instead called for a ban on campaign contributions from corporations and a cap on donations.
Differences in track record
Because Perriello and Northam have similar policy views, much of their sniping in the primary has focused on the past.
● Perriello has renounced several conservative stances he took while in Congress including: supporting an unsuccessful amendment to the Affordable Care Act that would have limited coverage of abortion in private health plans, supporting the National Rifle Association and accepting its endorsement, and backing oil drilling off the Virginia coast.
● Northam has fended off criticism for past flirtations with the Republican Party. He acknowledged voting twice for President George W. Bush, which he chalks up to his being tuned out of politics. As a state senator, he was courted by Republicans to switch parties in 2009, although he says he never seriously considered leaving the Democratic Party. And as recently as 2013, he described himself as a fiscal conservative and moderate.
The Republican race
● Gillespie has racked up the most endorsements from Republican lawmakers, including GOP leaders in the House and the Senate, as well as former Republican governors Robert F. McDonnell and George Allen. He is also backed by scores of local Republican elected officials and a few national Republican figures, including Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Tom Cotton (Ark.), and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
● Stewart has the support of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a gun rights group, and Tea Party Nation. Some alumni of President Trump’s campaign operation in Virginia back him, but he burned bridges with others after attacking the Republican National Committee as being insufficiently supportive of Trump during the campaign. He lost a few endorsements in his own Prince William County after making the defense of the state’s Confederate heritage a central campaign theme.
● Wagner has support from John Watkins, a former state senator who led the powerful Finance Committee; The Washington Post’s editorial board; as well as community leaders and shipyard executives in his native Hampton Roads.
Differences on issues
If Virginia elects a Republican governor, he will be in a position to deliver sweeping policy change if the legislature stays under GOP control. Here are some ways the Republican candidates differ on issues:
● Taxes: Gillespie has called for a 10 percent across-the-board cut to income tax rates, if future economic growth hits certain targets. Wagner says such a move is foolish and would threaten the state’s finances, and he’s proposing additional changes to gas and other taxes that would increase revenue for transportation projects. Stewart has said Gillespie’s plan wouldn’t go far enough; he wants to phase out the income tax completely and drastically slash state spending to compensate for the revenue that would be lost.
● Abortion: Gillespie has said he would like to see abortion banned, while preserving exceptions for rape, incest and when the mother’s life is at risk, a position shared by Wagner. Stewart supports an absolute ban, including when the mother’s life is at risk.
● Criminal justice: Wagner has called for an expansion of the state’s drug-court model to steer offenders to treatment instead of incarceration, while punishing violent offenders harshly. Gillespie says he wants to see fewer people incarcerated and supports a state commission’s review of penalties for marijuana crimes. Stewart has called for the decriminalization of simple possession of marijuana.
● All three say the state must address illegal immigration, but Stewart has taken the toughest stance, calling for “sanctuary city” mayors to be jailed for not turning over criminal illegal immigrants to federal officials for deportation.
● Confederate monuments: They all say statues of Confederate leaders should not come down but give the matter different weight. Stewart thrust the issue into the primary by holding rallies in support of a statue of General Robert E. Lee set for removal in Charlottesville. When white nationalist Richard Spencer led an explicitly racist, torch-lit rally at the site in May, Stewart was the only one of the three who did not condemn it. Gillespie has said decisions about statues should be made locally. Wagner describes calls to remove Confederate memorabilia “political correctness run amok,” but he prefers to focus on issues such as traffic congestion and workforce development.
In a state where President Trump is deeply unpopular, the Republican nominee will enter an electoral playing field where he will have to turn out the base and attract moderates. All three take different approaches to the president:
● Gillespie has carefully straddled a line in his responses to decisions by the president and keeps his focus on Virginia, but said he would welcome Trump’s support on the campaign trail. He was noncommital on Trump’s decision to fire James B. Comey as director of the FBI and on the health-care overhaul bill passed by the House. He supported the president’s decision to pull the United States out of the Paris climate pact and backed the proposed ban on entry to the United States by citizens of certain majority-Muslim countries, although he said the Trump administration had erred by initially including green card holders.
● Stewart is campaigning as a loyal foot soldier of the president’s who has never wavered in his support. He likes to say he was “Trump before Trump was Trump.” But he was perhaps a little too eager in his support and was fired as chairman of Trump’s Virginia campaign after staging an unauthorized protest against the RNC for what he considered to be its tepid support for candidate Trump.
● Wagner has frequently sided with Trump and his policies but his support isn’t quite as fervent as Stewart’s.
Laura Vozzella contributed to this report
Read more about the candidates:
Ralph Northam (D)
Tom Perriello (D)
Ed Gillespie (R)
Corey Stewart (R)
Frank Wagner (R)