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What to Watch For in Virginia: Governor’s Race Is Test of Trump’s Impact

WASHINGTON — Polls close in Virginia at 7 p.m. Eastern — follow along with live results then.

The governors’ races in Virginia and New Jersey mark the latest test of President Trump’s impact on voters in the sort of heavily suburban and highly affluent areas that were once the bedrock of the Republican Party.

Neither of the Republican nominees, Ed Gillespie in Virginia and Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno in New Jersey, appeared with Mr. Trump during the race — the first time a sitting president did not campaign in at least one of the states during their governor’s races since President George W. Bush shunned the 2001 campaign after the Sept. 11 attacks.

But while keeping their distance from Mr. Trump, Ms. Guadagno and Mr. Gillespie, a former national party chairman, mimicked elements of the president’s hard-line statements. Both used provocative ads to accuse their Democratic rivals, Lt. Gov. Ralph S. Northam in Virginia and Philip Murphy in New Jersey, of being insufficiently tough on illegal immigration.

And on Tuesday morning, Mr. Trump, who is traveling in South Korea, reminded Virginia voters of those commercials. He wrote on Twitter that “MS-13 and crime will be gone” if the state elects Mr. Gillespie, a reference to a violent gang with roots in Central America. “Ralph Northam will allow crime to be rampant in Virginia,” the president claimed, the sort of bombast that could aid the get-out-the-vote efforts of both candidates.

Virginia is expected to be the more competitive of the two contests, as polls show Mr. Northam with only a narrow advantage, while Mr. Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive and ambassador, enjoys a sizable lead. There are also a host of local races, from mayoral contests to a special election in Washington State to a health care referendum in Maine, we will be keeping an eye on.

Here are some factors we will be paying attention to as voters go to the polls Tuesday.

Virginia Is Becoming Two States in One

Virginia’s politics are becoming sharply bifurcated by region in ways that reflect the country’s political trends. The so-called “urban crescent,” stretching from the Washington suburbs down to greater Richmond and east toward the Chesapeake Bay, is growing rapidly thanks to an influx of transplants who are transforming it into a Democratic bulwark. The western half of the state, as well as the southern tier bordering North Carolina, are seeing little population growth, and in some places even a decline, while becoming deeply Republican.

These trends are turning Virginia from purple to blue, but it is an uneven progression for Democrats because — as in much of the country — many of their core voters are less likely to vote in nonpresidential years. So while Hillary Clinton carried Prince William County, a booming and ethnically diverse Washington exurb, by 21 points last year, Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, only won it by eight points in 2013.

A Virginia Democrat with rural roots such as Mr. Northam, who still carries the accent of his native Eastern Shore, may be able to outperform Mrs. Clinton’s dismal numbers in the Republican-trending rural reaches of the state. But even if Mr. Gillespie performs as well as Mr. Trump in the countryside, it will not be enough to win if he cannot cut into the growing Democratic advantage in Virginia’s population centers, especially in vote-rich northern Virginia. After all, Mr. Trump still lost the state by more than five points even as he dominated rural Virginia.

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The Education Divide Could Still Matter

The gulf between college-educated whites and white voters without a college degree was a defining demographic split of the 2016 presidential election, but the divide has not been as pronounced in the elections held since.

Still, could the education gap be poised for a comeback? A New York Times Upshot/Siena College poll ahead of the race, among other surveys, showed Mr. Northam holding a clear lead among well-educated white voters, while giving Mr. Gillespie a vast advantage edge among white voters without a degree.

If Mr. Gillespie struggles to run ahead of Mr. Trump among well-educated voters, it might be a warning sign that even establishment-friendly Republicans cannot count on returning to pre-2016 levels among a group that used to lean their way. And it should worry Republicans in historically conservative, well-educated districts across the Sun Belt, like those in Orange County, Calif., or the suburbs of Dallas and Houston.

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Black Voter Turnout Is Still Crucial for Democrats

In Virginia, African-Americans make up 19 percent of the population, the second highest of any state carried by Hillary Clinton. They have lifted Democrats in the urban centers of downstate Virginia, like Richmond or Norfolk, which combine to rival Northern Virginia’s contribution to statewide Democratic margins.

But Democrats have struggled to rally strong turnout among black voters since President Barack Obama was last on the ballot, even as white Democratic turnout surged in a string of special elections across the country.

More weak turnout among black voters in a regularly scheduled election could be interpreted as a clue that the Obama-era surge is waning, while a stronger turnout would lift Democratic hopes in competitive congressional districts with a sizable African-American population.

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How to Read the Tea Leaves as Returns Come In

The early returns in Virginia can often be misleading because Fairfax County, the state’s most populous locality and a pillar of Democratic strength, typically reports its results late at night. But Loudoun County just next door may offer some better, and earlier, insights about the outcome of the race — to say nothing of how high-income moderates are responding to the Trump-era Republican Party. A fast-growing jurisdiction that was heavily farmland until recent decades, Loudoun has become a bellwether for if a Republican can win or even remain competitive in Virginia.

When Mr. Gillespie lost by less than a single point statewide when he ran against Senator Mark Warner in 2014, the Republican carried Loudoun by about 450 votes.

Another large locality that will be telling is Virginia Beach. A hub of active-duty and retired military, it often favors Republicans, including Mr. Trump last year. But Mr. Northam lives in nearby Norfolk and if he is able to come close to breaking even in Virginia Beach it will greatly complicate Mr. Gillespie’s path to victory.

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Downballot Races Could Make a Difference

While the governor’s race has gotten the bulk of the attention in Virginia, all 100 seats in the House of Delegates are also up for grabs. Democrats, reeling from their losses last year and determined to cut into the Republican House majority, have fielded candidates against 54 of the 66 House Republicans.

And while it is usually the top of the ticket that drives turnout, the two parties have poured so much money into a group of contested House races that there may be something of an updraft in a handful of increasingly diverse districts.

This is most likely to happen in Prince William County and a pair of nearby independent cities, Manassas and Manassas Park, which include growing Hispanic populations and have a seen a surge in early voting participation compared to the governor’s race four years ago.

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How the New Jersey Governor’s Race Could Go

The contest to replace Gov. Chris Christie in New Jersey has largely flown under the national radar because Mr. Murphy has so dominated the race. But New Jersey offers a potential boon to Democrats eager to consolidate control in more liberal-leaning states.

Should Mr. Murphy win, New Jersey would become the sixth state in the country to have Democrats in control of both the statehouse and the state Legislature. Look for Mr. Murphy to exceed previous candidates in the heavily urban northern part of the state, particularly Hudson, Essex and Bergen counties, to lock the election up early.

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What to Watch in Other Races Across the Country

There are a number of other regularly scheduled and special elections across the country on Tuesday. In Washington State, if Democrats win a hotly contested State Senate election in the Seattle suburbs, they could take full control of state government and end up with a “blue wall” along the West Coast.

The stakes are somewhat lower in county executive races in Westchester, N.Y. and Nassau County, N.Y., but each will be watched as another indicator of how Republicans are holding up in traditionally Republican, well-educated areas. Here is a breakdown of key issues in New York-area races, including the one for New York City mayor.

And there is a Maine ballot measure that would expand Medicaid over the wishes of the state’s Republican governor, Paul LePage. Not only would it provide health care to thousands of low-income Maine residents, but it will be taken as a measure of the popularity of the Affordable Care Act after Republicans failed to repeal the law this year.

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