Virginia Primaries Signal Republicans Even More Divided Than Democrats

In both parties’ contests, the establishment candidate ultimately won

Republican candidate for governor of Virginia Ed Gillespie. Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images

This year’s elections are the first indicators of how elections in 2018 and 2020 will play out. If Tuesday’s primary contest in Virginia is any indication, we will likely see a rematch between Donald Trump’s fiery populism and a Democratic moderate.

Why Special Elections Matter

As the dust settles on the 2016 election, new battle lines are already being drawn. Will Trump’s outsider brand prevail in future elections, or will the GOP establishment mount a comeback? On the Democratic side, will Hillary Clinton’s loss discredit the centrist brand that has worked since 1992, or will the party pivot to the left and embrace Bernie Sanders’ revolution?

Special elections in Kansas, Montana, and Georgia foreshadow how well Republicans and Democrats will perform in left-leaning states. These statewide primaries show us the direction of both parties.

The New Jersey race will be interesting, especially the general election. Some speculate that Democrats may ignore the New Jersey governor contest and let the wealthy Phil Murphy handle things himself in the contest with GOP nominee Kim Guadagno. The Virginia governor race, however, can tell us a lot more about the state of the two parties.

Virginia Is For Moderates

Most pundits expected a narrow race in the Democratic primary and a cake walk on the Republican side. The opposite happened, which speaks volumes about the state of both parties.

The GOP contest wasn’t supposed to be close. Republicans had Ed Gillespie, a former head of the Republican National Committee (RNC) who came within a whisker of unseating powerful Democratic Sen. Mark Warner in the 2014 Virginia Senate contest. He faced Corey Stewart, a Trump supporter who has never held elected office and who labeled Gillespie “Establishment Ed.” He was dismissed as the head of the Trump campaign team in Virginia in October 2016 for organizing a protest against the RNC in Virginia.

“The truth needs to be told,” Stewart said. “Paul Ryan, the Mitt Romneys, the Reince Priebuses, they don’t want Trump to win. They’re sabotaging the campaign.”

Even though Trump fired him, Stewart appealed to his supporters. He also tapped into conservative ire over the removal of Confederate statues in places like Charlottesville, Va. The firebrand nearly defeated Gillespie.

“It’s been crazy,” a conservative Virginian voter told the Observer, “Highly negative from all directions.”

On the Democratic side, pundits expected a tight, grueling race. Low key moderate Lt. Governor Ralph Northam squared off against liberal former Congressman Tom Perriello. The party of centrist Clintonites like Governor Terry McAuliffe and Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine were pitted against the Bernie Sanders’ more vocal progressives.

Northam cruised to a surprisingly easy 55.9 percent to 44 percent victory over Perriello. The race never got as nasty as Democrats feared it might.

A Perriello supporter expressed dismay at the setback, but told the Observer that he believes Northam can win in the Fall. “But I hope [Perriello] runs for something in the future,” he said. Perhaps he will try to reclaim his seat in Congress that he lost a few years ago.

Virginia’s primaries indicate that Republicans are more divided than the GOP feared, and Democrats are more united than expected. Anything can happen before 2018 and 2020, but to use a baseball analogy, the Democrats appear slightly up in the early innings, though Republicans can take solace in that the fact that it was a similar story in 2013.

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga.  He can be reached at His Twitter account is JohnTures2.

Virginia Primaries Signal Republicans Even More Divided Than Democrats