Voters head to the polls Tuesday in Virginia to decide their next governor in a race that has been closely watched as a bellwether for the political climate ahead of the 2018 midterm elections and a test of President Donald Trump’s influence in the only southern state he lost in the 2016 elections.
The race between Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, and former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie started out as a relatively tame political contest between two moderates, but has morphed into an intense battle over hot-button issues like illegal immigration, race relations and Confederate monuments.
Republicans have won just one out of the last four gubernatorial elections in Virginia since 2001 and national groups have poured money and resources into the state to boost Gillespie’s campaign. President Trump did not campaign with Gillespie, however Vice President Mike Pence did appear with the candidate last month at a rally in southern Virginia.
Northam has also attracted support from national Democrats and appeared on the campaign trail with both former President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. Democrats are eager to pull out a win in Virginia to show tangible political resistance to the Trump presidency.
Here’s a look at what you need to know about who is running and what matters ahead of Tuesday’s election:
Northam, Virginia’s Democratic Lieutenant Governor, grew up on Virginia’s Eastern Shore and attended the Virginia Military Institute. He later served as an Army doctor and taught medicine and ethics at Eastern Virginia Medical School.
He was elected as the state’s lieutenant governor in 2013, serving under current Gov. Terry McAuliffe. He faced a legitimate primary challenger in former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello, but was able to win the nomination with help from McAuliffe and other Democratic groups in the state.
Gillespie has been a staple in Republican Party politics for decades, serving as a former RNC Chairman and counselor to President George W. Bush. Gillespie has also worked as a lobbyist and political strategist. In 2000, he co-founded a consulting firm, Quinn, Gillespie & Associates.
Gillespie ran for U.S. Senate in 2014, and nearly unseated incumbent Mark Warner, a Democrat. Gillespie lost the election by less than one point in a result that caught many political observers off guard.
In the Republican primary, Gillespie was nearly beaten by Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart, who ran as a more conservative and Trump-aligned alternative.
The Trump Question
While President Trump did not personally campaign for Gillespie, his presence has loomed large over the race throughout the fall.
The president did however endorse Gillespie over Twitter, praising his ads highlighting violence perpetrated by the MS-13 gang in Virginia.
Gillespie approached questions about President Trump very cautiously throughout the campaign, but Northam, who called Trump a “narcissistic maniac” early in the campaign, has tried to tie Gillespie to him at every turn. The president’s approval rating in Virginia was measured at just 34 percent in a recent poll by Quinnipiac.
Northam has run ads in the final weeks of the campaign linking Gillespie to Trump, likely in the hopes that the unpopular president will be enough of a drag in certain areas of the state for Northam to pull out a win.
The Ad Wars
Most of the campaign’s most heated exchanges have come over the airways.
Gillespie has run ads throughout the state highlighting crimes committed by the violent MS-13 gang, accusing Northam of supporting policies that have allowed the gang to grow in the state. The Republican has also run ads highlighting Northam’s support for the automatic restoration of certain rights for criminals, saying the policy allows sex offenders to have their gun rights restored.
Gillespie has also tried to use the controversy over Confederate monuments to his advantage, running ads touting how the monuments will “stay up” if he is elected, while hitting Northam for saying he would take steps to remove some statues.
While Northam has largely attacked Gillespie over his lobbying career, a mailer sent out by the state’s Democratic Party linked Gillespie and Trump to the white nationalist protesters that caused chaos over the summer in Charlottesville, according to the Washington Post.
Just last week, an outside group called Latino Victory Fund ran an ad featuring a pickup truck donned with a Confederate flag and Gillespie bumper sticker menacing young, minority children. The Gillespie campaign called the ad “vile” and “an attack on all Virginians.”
The Northam campaign did not condemn the ad.
“It is not shocking that communities of color are scared of what his Trump-like policy positions mean for them,” campaign spokesman Ofirah Yheskel and told ABC News in an email.
The group eventually pulled the ad off the air after eight people were killed in New York City after a deadly truck attack that targeted cyclists and pedestrians.
Looking to 2018
With the largely uncompetitive New Jersey gubernatorial race the only other statewide election tomorrow, Virginia will be looked at as the best political barometer leading up to the 2018 midterms.
Republicans have a much more favorable map when it comes to senate races, as Democrats are defending 23 seats held by incumbents, and two independent seats with members that caucus with them. Republicans by contrast are defending just eight seats.
The last year a Republican was elected governor of Virginia was 2009 when Bob McDonnell defeated Democratic state Sen. Creigh Deeds.
With the Trump’s effect on the 2018 midterms still largely a question mark, the Virginia race will give both parties an early look at how they approach key races across the country.