Virginia governors are only allowed to serve one term, which means that every four years, voters are treated to the turbulent highs and lows that usually accompany an open gubernatorial election.
This year’s contest was no exception: Lt. Governor Ralph Northam competed with Republican political consultant Ed Gillespie in what became 2017’s most hotly contested race.
Though Northam maintained at least a slight edge over Gillespie in polls throughout their campaigns, toward the end of the race, Gillespie crept up several points, indicating that the race might finish even more closely than expected.
But on Election Night, the Associated Press called the race in Northam’s favor less than two hours after the polls closed. At the time of the call, just under 60 percent of precincts were reporting and Northam held a 4 percent lead.
“Northam’s victory was in large part due to a surge in anti-Trump energy since the president took office. Democrats said they had record levels of enthusiasm heading into the race,” said the AP.
9:27 p.m. EST: With 95 percent of precincts reporting, Northam’s lead has widened to 8 percentage points. He currently has 53 percent of the votes compared to Gillespie’s 45 percent.
“This is a really important night, and it’s not only an important night for Virginia, but it’s a blueprint for what we’re doing everywhere which is competing in every zip code, and telling our story,” DNC Chair Tom Perez told MSNBC, who has reported that Gillespie called Northam to concede.
8:55 p.m. EST: Northam has made a victory speech, and Donald Trump has commented on his win.
“Ed Gillespie worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for. Don’t forget, Republicans won 4 out of 4 House seats, and with the economy doing record numbers, we will continue to win, even bigger than before!” tweeted Trump.
8:17 p.m. EST: The Associated Press has called the race in favor of Northam. Nearly 58 percent of precincts are now reporting, and Northam’s lead is holding steady at just under 4 percent.
“Democrat Ralph Northam Wins Hard-Fought Race For Governor,” reads a breaking news headline on the AP website.
8:13 p.m. EST: The Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman is on FiveThirtyEight‘s live blog talking about the Virginia election in the past tense, assuming a win for Northam:
It’s pretty clear that Northam’s win is large enough to sweep the entire Democratic statewide ticket, including Lt. Gov. candidate Justin Fairfax and sitting Attorney General Mark Herring, into office. Now I’m going to survey the damage to the GOP in the House of Delegates, which at first glance looks pretty rough.
8:05 p.m. EST: With just over 40 percent of precincts reporting, Northam leads Gillespie by about three-and-a-half points.
The New York Times is predicting that Northam will win the race by eight points. “Right now, our most likely estimates span Northam +12 to Northam +3.4. The darker region shows the middle 50 percent of our forecasts. The more we know, the narrower our range will be.”
7:15 p.m. EST: Exit polls put Northam five points ahead of Gillespie, but FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten, like his colleague, is reminding us not to trust the polls.
7:06 p.m EST: The polls have closed in Virginia, but people who are already in line will still be able to vote.
The Virginia Department of Elections estimates that results will start coming in around 9 p.m., and it is expected to be a tight race as recent polls have shown Gillespie and Northam neck-and-neck.
But Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight is here on election night to tell us that the polls are not always right:
It’s healthy to take away the lesson from 2016 that polls are not always right. And the uncertainty may be higher in some cases than others. As in last year’s presidential election, for example, there are a large number of undecided in the Virginia governor’s race — which could indicate a polling error in either direction.
Campaign rhetoric in this year’s race has been expectedly heated. Gillespie has often seized upon Northam’s failure to attend pivotal meetings during his tenure in state government, claiming that the lieutenant governor failed to show up for work. On the other side of the aisle, Northam’s favorite way to taunt Gillespie is by jabbing at his history as a lobbyist in Washington and criticizing his professional ties to corporations like Enron and Koch Industries.
Polls for the 2017 election have, for the most part, favored Northam. However, over the past month Gillespie has bested Northam in three polls and tied in another, and some Democrats are worried that the party might lose yet another governorship (there are 34 Republican governors and only 15 Democrats).
It certainly doesn’t help that the seat flipped in both the 2014 and 2010 elections, and neither party has had a firm grip on it for decades. And while this odd, off-year race in a swing state might feel pivotal to next year’s mid-term elections given the rocky political climate lately, experts say that it’s actually not.
While it may not tell us what to expect in 2018, Virginia’s gubernatorial race will still have a national impact, first and foremost because the winner will preside over the congressional redistricting that will take place in 2021 after the U.S. Census is completed.
According to David Wasserman at The Cook Political Report, another strong influence of Virginia’s governor race will be its ability to drive voter turnout in the state legislative races, and those seats do matter when it comes to 2018 predictions. Wasserman says that if Democrats pick up at least 5 to 10 seats in the Virginia House of Delegates, it could signal a corresponding shift in the U.S. House next year, as the 2009 state legislative races did for the 2010 mid-term elections.