Why Colorado Should Pay Close Attention to Virginia's Governor Race

If you don't know it, familiarize yourself with the Virginia State Capitol.
If you don't know it, familiarize yourself with the Virginia State Capitol.
Sean Pavone/Shutterstock.com
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Colorado is gearing up for next year's string of elections, including a gubernatorial race that will determine term-limited Democrat John Hickenlooper's replacement. And there's reason to look outside Colorado to predict the outcome of that race.

Virginia's gubernatorial race is being billed as an early referendum on Donald Trump's presidency and how his unpopularity may affect Republicans down ballot in next year's midterm elections. It could also serve as a precursor to which side of the aisle Colorado lands in next year.

The November 7 gubernatorial race in Virginia pits the state's current Democratic lieutenant governor (and most pundits' narrow-ish favorite) Ralph Northam against Ed Gillespie, a longtime Republican lobbyist. Like Colorado, Virginia will see a reasonably popular centrist Democrat leaving the governor's mansion as a result of term limits. Terry McAuliffe is departing after four years as Virginia's governor, leaving with approval ratings roughly in the low fifties, perhaps a tick behind but comparable to Hickenlooper's popularity here.

Boosted by a massive influx of well-educated transplants in the last few years, who have especially found a home in the well-off suburbs outside of Washington, D.C., Virginia's demographics and voting tendencies more closely mirror Colorado's than any other state, with the exception of, perhaps, Nevada. But there are other reasons why Virginia is so similar to Colorado.

Let's start with last year's presidential-election results. Hillary Clinton won both swing states by nearly identical margins, taking Colorado by 4.91 percent and Virginia by 5.32 percent, a difference of less than half a percentage point. Clinton and Trump alternated pulling ads in both states during the election cycle based on polling, and the two states were usually lumped together in such decisions.

Hickenlooper will be dethroned in 2018.
Hickenlooper will be dethroned in 2018.

Both states used to be reliably red at the presidential level, and both voted for a Democrat in 2008 (Barack Obama) for the first time in a long time. In fact, in the eighteen presidential elections since 1944, Virginia and Colorado have voted for the same general-election presidential candidate with only one exception: 1992, when Colorado narrowly went for Bill Clinton while Virginia narrowly voted for George H.W. Bush. That's a striking degree of similarity for two states that flipped from being longtime Republican mainstays to leaning Democratic in the exact same election.

But more than voting numbers, demographics align the two states more than anything else, and specifically in regard to their large respective shares of well-educated voters. Colorado is second among the fifty states in percentage of adult residents with a college degree (38.1 percent). Virginia ranks closely behind in sixth place, with 36.3 percent of its adults (25+) holding at least a bachelor's degree. Both states have seen those numbers, along with their overall population figures, jump in recent years as transplants move in.

Racially, Virginia is home to a significantly larger African-American population than Colorado (19.8 percent versus 4.5 percent here), but the Centennial State's large Hispanic population (21.3 percent) means that both states' minority populations are at comparable levels.

Both states' poverty levels are exactly the same (11 percent), and the average Virginia household is only slightly wealthier than the average Colorado one (about $65,000 per year in Virginia versus $60,000 here).

It's hard to find a perfect electoral match, but if there ever was one, Virginia and Colorado are about as close as any two states can come, especially for ones so far away from each other.

Hillary Clinton won both swing states by nearly identical margins.
Hillary Clinton won both swing states by nearly identical margins.
Evan El-Amin/Shutterstock.com

With all of that in mind, there are still considerable differences in the electorate. Virginia's liberals are more suburban and African-American than Colorado's whiter, progressive-leaning Democratic voters. Virginia went for Clinton in last year's presidential primaries by nearly thirty points, while Colorado's Democratic caucuses opted for Bernie Sanders by nearly twenty.

On the Republican side, far-right upstart Corey Stewart nearly beat Gillespie (then the heavy favorite) in the June primaries, running mostly on a platform centered around strong ties to Trump and a sharp defense of Confederate monuments, all of which, of course, came to a head in the deadly August violence in Charlottesville.

Conclusion: It's probably best to leave the Virginia-Colorado comparisons at home when it comes to the primaries. But Virginia's general-election numbers in the November 7 governor's race is likely to have a big say on how things stand for next fall's Colorado gubernatorial election.

So what should we take away from the winner?

A large Northam win (let's say by six or more points) could represent a combination of dissatisfaction with Trump, a fired-up Democratic base turning out at higher levels, and/or hardcore Trump Republicans not turning out (Gillespie, a former George W. Bush aide, has mostly kept his distance from the commander-in-chief). This could be a good sign for Colorado Democrats' hopes next year, though even a double-digit win here obviously would have to be taken with a big grain of salt coming a full year away from our own contest.

A narrow Northam win (let's say two points or fewer) or certainly a Gillespie victory could be a good sign for Republicans, and both scenarios would indicate that a moderate establishment party figure may potentially stand a better-than-expected chance in next year's midterms. Some possible takeaways: Trump-skeptic Republicans who either didn't vote or voted for Hillary aren't punishing down-ballot Republican candidates, the Democratic base is not turning out at levels hoped by party leaders, and/or Republican party establishment figures still hold plenty of clout despite strong, overt challenges from Steve Bannon's nationalist Republican party wing.

Another key question in Virginia whose answer would directly apply to Colorado: How will the state's large share of well-educated voters, a group that sharply turned against Trump last fall, vote? Watch in particular for returns in Fairfax County, a generally well-off suburban county that was long a swing district that voted decidedly for Clinton last year. Fairfax is an imperfect but still reasonable comparison to swingy Jefferson, Arapahoe and Larimer counties here.

Whatever the outcome of the gubernatorial race in Virginia, you can safely bet that Colorado strategists on both sides of the aisle will be up late on November 7, tracking the results of a race happening some 1,600 miles away.

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