What to know about the Virginia gubernatorial race

Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (left) speaks at the Dar Alnoor Islamic Community Center in Manassas, Virginia. Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie (right) speaks during a Tea Party debate.

AP Photo/Steve Helber

What's going on in the Virginia gubernatorial race?

Virginia elects a new governor on November 7th because the incumbent, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, is limited to one four-year term. His lieutenant governor, Ralph Northam, is the Democratic nominee, while the Republican nominee is former Republican National Committee chair Ed Gillespie.

And who is going to win?

Depending on the poll, Northam either has a comfortable lead or it's neck-and-neck. And although Northam appears to be ahead, Republicans are hoping that the polls are underestimating Gillespie, who nearly pulled off a surprise upset in his 2014 Senate run against Democratic Sen. Mark Warner.

Virginia was for decades a reliably Republican state, but changing demographics and the growth of the state's liberal counties around Washington, D.C., have given the Old Dominion a bluish hue. In 2016, it was the only southern state Hillary Clinton won, repeating President Obama's victories in that state in 2008 and 2012. In some respects, the race shouldn't even be this close, given President Trump's low approval ratings and the state's history of electing Democrats. "If the Democrats can get their base out," Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute, told the Washington Examiner, "they can win."

Virginia's governor and two senators are all Democrats. In fact, Republicans haven't won a statewide race in Virginia in eight years. However, Republicans hope that their newfound strength in rural areas that once voted Democratic could give them the edge.

Why is the GOP doing better in rural Virginia?

Coal, for one thing. Southwest Virginia is coal country, and many voters there suspect Democrats are too critical of the fossil fuel. As far as they're concerned, Clinton validated that suspicion when she vowed to put coal workers "out of business" during the 2016 Democratic primary. Gillespie promises to reinstate a coal tax credit, while Northam has promoted renewable energy. Although President Trump lost the state, he outperformed 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney in coal country. And considering that Romney spent much more time trying to win Virginia than Mr. Trump ever did, that's a real accomplishment. 

Northam has also been a proponent of removing monuments to the Confederacy in Virginia, while Gillespie has promised to protect them. Should Northam lose, it could make Democrats throughout the South much more cautious about calling for the monuments' removal. 

So the stakes for Democrats are pretty high?

Indeed they are. Democrats have benefited greatly from the expanding population of voter-rich and liberal-leaning Northern Virginia. But with President Trump in the White House, they're nervous about losing the blue-collar white voters who used to make up a major pillar of the Democratic base. 

There are also concerns, as The Washington Post reported on Monday, that a loss could exacerbate the tensions between the Democratic Party's left-leaning activists and its more moderate wing going in to 2018. These tensions are still simmering after the bruising 2016 presidential primary battle between Sen. Bernie Sanders, a hero to progressives, and eventual nominee Hillary Clinton, an avatar of the party's centrist establishment. 

Northam, a pediatric neurologist, defeated the Sanders-backed Tom Perriello in the Democratic primary over the summer. Should Northam lose this race, it could buttress the progressive argument that the Democrats would fair better in elections if they embraced a more left-wing message. 

Democrats have lost every major election since Mr. Trump took office. And if Northam loses, plenty of Democrats are sure to become apoplectic at their party's inability to win elections despite the president's low approval ratings and the inability of the GOP-controlled Congress to pass major pieces of legislation. 

What are Democrats doing to get Northam elected?

For one thing, they're spending plenty of money, with the Democratic National Committee spending $1.5 million on the race to hire 40 staffers, according to The Washington Post. Northam has also received a late influx of $400,000 from the Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund, the action arm of America's largest pro-gun control group. As of September, Northam still had $5.7 million cash on hand, compared to Gillespie's $2.5 million. Hillary Clinton also held a fundraiser for Northam in New York earlier this month. 

However, the Republican National Committee, which has a much larger war chest than the DNC, has spent $3 million on the race. Gillespie also has the support of the National Rifle Association, which has given him an "A" rating and booked $1 million in ads on his behalf. Former President George W. Bush has also hosted fundraisers for Gillespie, who was also White House counselor during his presidency.

What are the stakes for the Republicans?

The stakes for the GOP are arguably much lower than they are for the Democrats, although a Northam victory could be seen to foreshadow major Democratic gains in the 2018 midterms. Also, it's not just Democrats who are going through a low-grade civil war: Gillespie won the Republican gubernatorial nomination very narrowly against Corey Stewart, who ran as an unapologetically pro-Trump Republican. So if Gillespie loses the general election next month, that could bolster the right-wing populist argument -- made most notably by former White House aide Steve Bannon -- that running traditional Republicans like Gillespie is a losing proposition. 

How is Trump affecting the race? 

Gillespie has tried to keep something of a distance from the president, who is deeply unpopular in northern Virginia. "I don't know the president," he told The New York Times earlier this month. "I've not met him." 

Still, Vice President Mike Pence has campaigned for Gillespie, who has embraced some Trump-like rhetoric, hammering Northam on issues like "sanctuary cities." One of Gillespie's ads also features tattooed Hispanic men grimacing at the camera as a narrator warns of MS-13, a criminal gang Mr. Trump has spoken of frequently. In another, Gillespie attacks Northam for supporting the restoration of voting rights to felons. Mr. Trump has also tweeted his support for Gillespie

For his part, Northam called Mr. Trump a "narcissistic maniac" during his primary run, has softened his language a little bit when it comes to the president. "Where there's room to work with him, I will," Northam said at a debate earlier this month. "Where he's dangerous, I'll stand up and protect Virginia." 

"I don't agree with everything the president says or tweets, but my focus is on Virginia," Gillespie said at the same debate.