What Colorado Should Take Away From the Virginia Gubernatorial Election

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On November 7, Democrat Ralph Northam won Virginia's gubernatorial election against Republican Ed Gillespie, beating him by nearly nine points, higher than pre-race polling showed and higher than Hillary Clinton's margin of victory in the state in 2016.

As we wrote two weeks ago, there are very close electoral ties between Virginia and Colorado that may offer some big clues as to how next year's gubernatorial race could swing here.

Before we get into that, remember to take all of this with many grains of salt: Our election isn't for another year, and, more important, Tuesday's Virginia vote was still a different election in a different state with different candidates. That said, there are some potentially big takeaways, ones that no doubt were closely watched by Colorado politicians on both sides of the aisle for clues as to how next year's gubernatorial race might turn out.

Northam won by nearly nine points, but it's where he won that's most telling.

The biggest takeaway from Tuesday's results undoubtedly starts and ends in D.C.'s suburbs, where Northam won the race by huge margins, larger than most expected. As the New York Times put it on Wednesday, Northam's victory was propelled by a "suburban rebellion."

The D.C. suburbs are part of Virginia. They're populated by residents who are well-educated and generally affluent. They also have substantial minority populations that closely align with Colorado's voter demographics. In particular, the returns in Loudon and Prince William counties, both on the outer fringes of D.C.'s metropolitan area, resemble somewhat swingy Arapahoe, Adams, Jefferson, Larimer and Broomfield counties here in Colorado.

This will be a challenge for 2018 Colorado Republican gubernatorial candidates: winning over moderate, suburban Republicans who either stayed home or voted against Trump last year.

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In Virginia's 2014 senatorial race, where incumbent Democrat Mark Warner squeaked past Gillespie, Loudon County narrowly supported Gillespie. But in 2017, Loudon flipped for Northam — by 20 points, an even higher margin than when the well-educated affluent suburban county supported Clinton just last year. Prince William County saw a similar flip, supporting Warner by only 2.5 points in 2014 before going for Clinton by 21 last year. It favored Northam by a 23 percent margin this week.

In other words, a large share of suburban voters who voted Republican in 2014 but turned away from Trump in 2016 voted closer, and even beyond, those 2016 margins. This will be a challenge for 2018 Colorado Republican gubernatorial candidates: winning over moderate, suburban Republicans who either stayed home or voted against Trump last year.

These sorts of returns could be particularly troubling for Senator Cory Gardner, who did well in Denver's suburbs en route to his 1.9-point win over then-incumbent Democrat Mark Udall back in 2014. Gardner lost Jefferson County and narrowly lost Adams and Arapahoe in that race; he doesn't run again until 2020.

In 2016, Trump lost to Clinton in those three counties by wide margins. He lost Jefferson County by about seven points, Adams by eight and Arapahoe by fourteen. A strong dislike of Trump, based on exit polling, played the primary role in Virginia's suburban vote, a factor that trickled down to Northam's convincing win this week.

A more establishment GOP figure losing as badly as Gillespie may give a far-right and pro-Trump candidate, such as Republican Tom Tancredo, extra arguments that they should be their party's nominee next year.

That said, assertions by Trump and conservative media outlets that Gillespie didn't "embrace" Trump enough doesn't appear to add up with the numbers. Heading into Tuesday's vote, the general Republican strategy was to flip Trump-skeptic but traditionally conservative voters in the D.C. suburbs while maintaining Trump's huge margins in rural areas. But the D.C. suburbs were where that strategy failed.

The rural areas, where Trump did especially well last year, mostly turned out for Gillespie, at near-2016 levels.
Though the numbers are inconclusive at best, you can still bet that Tancredo and others will point to Tuesday's blowout as proof that pro-Trump candidates will stand a better chance in a general election.

Interestingly, Virginia Beach, home to America's third-largest naval base and a traditional Republican mainstay that voted for Trump, voted for Northam by five points. It's worth noting that Northam is an Army veteran and from this part of Virginia, which surely helped him. But signs of at least some Republican dissatisfaction from a military-heavy and traditionally Republican part of the state — think Colorado Springs — may lead to more targeted campaigning in those areas.

There are differences between Virginia and Colorado that won't lead to the same results. Virginia has more than four times Colorado's African-American population, Colorado is decidedly more independent than Virginia, and Colorado leans ever-so-slightly redder than Virginia. But there's little question that Democrats nationwide are feeling good about Tuesday's results.
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Chris Bianchi is a Westword contributor interested in politics.
Contact: Chris Bianchi