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How the Virginia governor’s race may test Trump’s popularity

In the first statewide elections since 2016, the governor's race in Virginia is taking the spotlight for what it says about the national political landscape under the Trump presidency. Judy Woodruff sits down with Stu Rothenberg of Inside Elections to discuss what’s at stake.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today marks the first statewide elections since 2016.

    The results matter, of course, to the local constituents. But races like the one in Virginia for governor are taking the spotlight for what they say about the national political landscape under a Trump presidency.

    We are going to break down now what is at stake in Virginia with Stuart Rothenberg of Inside Elections.

    Welcome back to the program.

  • Stuart Rothenberg:

     Thanks, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Stu, why is this Virginia governor’s race getting so much attention?

  • Stuart Rothenberg:

    Because, as you say, people are looking to this race as an indication of the mood, and is it changing? Are attitudes toward Donald Trump filtering down to the electorate and going to have an effect on this race? And could they possibly then tell us something about 2018?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, you have a Democratic governor stepping down in Terry McAuliffe.

    And the candidates running, Democrat Ralph Northam, the lieutenant governor…

  • Stuart Rothenberg:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … running against Republican Ed Gillespie.

    What kind of races have they been running?

  • Stuart Rothenberg:

    Well, Gillespie — it’s funny. Gillespie’s background is as an establishment Republican. He chaired the RNC. He was close to George Bush. He was on — he was an adviser to the Romney campaign.

    Yet, the more he’s run, the more he’s sounded like Donald Trump, talking about cultural issues, football players kneeling, Confederate statues and things like that. And so his campaign, even though Ed has a reputation as being an establishment guy, he’s running as a Trump candidate.

    Northam is raising the issue of Trump somewhat. He’s also trying to present himself as a reasonable governor, as not a lunatic left-winger. He’s a doctor. He knows people. He’s spent his whole life helping people. He’s running that kind of campaign and I think trying not to alienate voters along the way.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, which groups of voters are we looking at? There is so much conversation about how Northern Virginia votes more Democratic, Southern, Western Virginia votes more Republican.

  • Stuart Rothenberg:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What are you looking at?

  • Stuart Rothenberg:

    Well, we’re looking at two things.

    We’re looking at the makeup of the electorate and how individual groups vote. Those are two slightly different things. If the electorate is significantly younger, that would be good for Northam, because younger voters tend to be more liberal, tend to be more Democratic. If the electorate is whiter than we expect, then that would be good for Gillespie, because that’s been the Republican strength and that’s his strength.

    So we’re looking to see which groups participate, and then how well the Northam and Gillespie do with each groups? So it’s one thing to say, yes, they’re a younger group, younger voters are voting, but are they voting more overwhelmingly for Northam, for example, than we would expect?

    So, it’s the number who are participating, but also how the groups are voting.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And in the polling that’s been done, what have voters been saying about what’s affecting their vote?

  • Stuart Rothenberg:

    Well, we have some numbers right now, this evening. The early numbers have been released on some preliminary exits, just preliminary.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But on their opinion, not on how they voted.

  • Stuart Rothenberg:

    Right. Right. This is just on — this is the exit poll on attitudes.

    And people — half the voters in Virginia, half the voters in Virginia are saying that Donald Trump is a factor, not the factor, not the only factor, but a factor in how they voted. And, by 2-1, those people tend to not be voting for Donald Trump.

    You know, candidates run campaigns. They talk about the issues they want to talk about. They emphasize their backgrounds. But even when they’re not specifically talking about Donald Trump, he’s there, he’s the cloud hanging over this campaign. And so I think he’s going to be a factor no matter what.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, he’s obviously been tweeting about the race. Vice President Pence has been in the state campaigning for him. Former President Obama was in there competing for Northam.

    These candidates have gone in, but for the parties to try to influence.

  • Stuart Rothenberg:

    The parties are spending lots of money, the Republican and Democratic governors association, interest groups, environmental groups on the Democratic side.

    So, yes, to some extent, the race has been nationalized, and also it’s Virginia. Half of the state is in the metropolitan D.C. area. So there’s no doubt that there’s something more here than simply two candidates.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We should say this is a state that — or you have said this — is trending Democratic over time.

  • Stuart Rothenberg:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Hillary Clinton won Virginia by, what, I guess six…

  • Stuart Rothenberg:

    Five — by five points.

    Yes, 30 years ago, we used to think of this as a leaning-Republican state. And now I think we think of it as either a toss-up state or probably, probably slightly leaning Democratic.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, for all those who are saying, aha, whatever happens in Virginia means this is what is going to happen next year, what do you say?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Stuart Rothenberg:

    I would say, hold on here. We are going to get some information tonight about how various groups voted or didn’t vote, participated or didn’t.

    We are going to learn something about how people feel about Donald Trump and about particular issues. It’s going to inform us over the next year.

    But, look, this is one contest, one election. Let’s not over-read from it. I think there are going to be some lessons, but be cautious.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, New Jersey is the one other state having a governor’s race today. The difference there is the Democrat has been running well ahead and is expected to win.

  • Stuart Rothenberg:

    Right.

    Phil Murphy, former ambassador to Germany. It’s a Democratic state. The outgoing public governor, Chris Christie, is wildly unpopular. Nobody is looking for New Jersey to have any lessons here. Donald Trump didn’t win the state.

    So, no, if you’re interested in something in New Jersey, I will give it to you, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I’m always interested in New Jersey.

  • Stuart Rothenberg:

    New Jersey 2, Frank LoBiondo, a pragmatic Republican, announced today he’s retiring. That’s another open seat. Trump won the district by about 4, 4.5 points last year, but Obama won it by eight points twice in 2008 and 2012.

    That’s a district I would look at. I think that’s more interesting than the governor’s race.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ah. And I think I just read that Chris Christie got into an argument with a voter today somewhere in New Jersey.

  • Stuart Rothenberg:

    He did? Surprise, surprise.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What a surprise.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Stu Rothenberg, thanks.

  • Stuart Rothenberg:

    Sure.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you will be back later on as we update the West Coast.

  • Stuart Rothenberg:

    I will. I will. Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Thank you very much.

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