The dynamics of the 2016 presidential race continue to shape the nation’s political terrain, and the latest evidence of that fact is this week’s primary results for governor in Virginia. In both the Democratic and Republican races, an urban-rural divide defined the outcome of those contests.
While these races have a tendency to hinge on local issues, Virginia is a key battleground during presidential and midterm election years. It’s the first such state primary in a battleground since 2016, when President Donald Trump lost Virginia and Hillary Clinton carried the state’s major metropolitan areas and their suburbs, particularly those outside of Washington, DC and Richmond.
Ed Gillespie, the former lobbyist and Republican National Committee chairman, parlayed his establishment connections and a strong showing in an unsuccessful bid for the Senate in 2014 into a narrow 44%-43% GOP primary victory over Prince William County Board of Supervisors chairman Corey Stewart. Veteran GOP state Senator Frank Wagner of Virginia Beach finished a distant third with 14%, based on complete but unofficial returns. Gillespie owes his 4,300-vote statewide margin of victory to his strength in the close-in suburbs of Washington, DC, and Richmond, the state capital.
In Fairfax County, the largest vote-producer in the primary just outside of Washington, Gillespie defeated Stewart, 48%-39%. Along with his two-to-one advantage over Stewart in nearby Arlington and Alexandria, Gillespie garnered roughly 7,700 votes more than Stewart in these areas.
Stewart, who aligned himself closely with the views of Trump, ran well on his home turf, the more working-class Washington exurbs of Prince William, defeating Gillespie 60%-32%. Gillespie narrowly prevailed in the more upscale and better-educated exurbs of Loudoun County, 45%-43%. But in the rest of the exurbs beyond the Washington Beltway, Stewart won a plurality of the votes.
Gillespie captured nearly 60% of the Republican primary votes cast in Richmond and its suburbs of Henrico County. He also narrowly carried the Hampton Roads region, Virginia’s other main urban center, which includes Chesapeake, Newport News, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Virginia Beach, winning just over a third of the votes cast there. Had Wagner not been on the ballot, Gillespie likely would have increased his margins in this area as well. Outside of Lynchburg and the Roanoke metro area, Stewart won wide swaths of the central and western Virginia rural communities, and nearly engineered an upset that few observers gave him much of a chance to pull off.
Virginia’s “urban crescent,” also played a critical role in the Democratic primary, where Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam handily defeated former Rep. Tom Perriello, 56%-44%. Northam, who had wide backing from the state’s Democratic Party establishment, trounced Perriello in Virginia’s Hampton Roads region. He won roughly seven-out-of-10 votes in this area that is next door to the state Senate district he once held. Northam also swept Richmond as well as its suburbs and exurbs.
Perriello carried the 5th Congressional District in central Virginia, which he represented for one term ending in 2011, except for the portions that stretched into the Washington, DC, exurbs of Fauquier and Rappahannock Counties. He also won most of the rural counties in the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah Valley on the western rim of the state save for half a dozen counties in its southwestern corner, where coal production peaked 20 years ago. Perriello’s staunch opposition to a proposed natural gas pipeline just north of the coal region may have hurt him among voters whose communities and culture are tied to fossil fuels.
But Perriello, who had moved to Arlington in Northern Virginia after his defeat in the 2010 midterm elections, was unable to gain much traction in the Washington suburbs and exurbs, where a strong performance is essential for Democratic candidates. Perriello fought Northam to almost a draw in both Loudoun and Prince William Counties, but in wealthy and increasingly diverse Fairfax County, where almost one-out-of-six of the Democratic primary votes were cast; Northam defeated Perriello 60%-40%. Likewise, he beat Perriello by three-to-two margins in the Democratic bastions of Alexandria and Arlington.
While Perriello’s television advertising featured footage of President Barack Obama touting him in the 2010 midterm elections, Northam ran very strong in urban areas where African-American voters account for a large proportion of the electorate like Hampton, Norfolk, Petersburg and Portsmouth. Northam also swept rural counties with majority black populations like Brunswick, Charles City, Greensville and Sussex. In all of these jurisdictions, Northam won more than 70% of the vote.
Higher turnout for Democrats
Roughly 542,000 ballots were cast in the Democratic primary and the GOP contest tallied some 366,000 votes. Virginia has almost 5.5 million registered voters, so the combined turnout was almost 17%. This is the first time since 1949 that both parties have conducted a primary for the same gubernatorial election, so turnout comparisons are difficult to make. In 2009, the last time the Democrats held a contested gubernatorial primary, just over 319,000 votes were cast. In 2005, Republicans held a noncompetitive primary for governor and some 175,000 ballots were tallied. In the 2013 gubernatorial general election, roughly 43% of the state’s registered voters went to the polls.