Today’s Washington Post reported on the latest results of a Quinnipiac poll demonstrating that former RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie enjoyed a wide lead among decided Republicans — before Representative Rob Wittman dropped the news that he would be focusing on opportunities to lead in Congress.
The poll results are here — Gillespie 24, Wittman 10, Stewart and Wager at 4 each. Prospective conservative challenger Denver Riggelman — a distiller from Central Virginia — who botched a rollout at the RPV Advance last weekend cannot be heartened by the numbers themselves.
For starters, Gillespie’s lead among declared supporters is at a factor of 7:3:1:1 — and that’s with Wittman in the race. Even if one presumes that the admittedly massive pool of undecided voters adopts something of the stance of Virginia 2016 POTUS results, Gillespie’s warchest helps solidify his narrative as frontrunner.
There’s another catch for prospective challengers as well — Gillespie leads among Tea Partiers by a substantial margin at 22 points, with Stewart at 8 points coming in a very distant second — a 14 point lead. Among evangelicals, Gillespie enjoys a 12 point lead over second place contender Wittman. With men it is a 20 point lead over Wittman, among women a 7 point lead. Gillespie has a 17 point lead among the college educated (read: Northern Virginia/NOVA); an 8 point lead over the closest contender among non-college educated voters (read: Real Virginia or “rest of Virginia”/ROVA).
One fascinating number in the matchups? Northam vs. Gillespie, it is Gillespie that leads Northam among 18-29 year olds by a whopping 5 points — outside the margin of error in a demographic Democrats typically carry in numbers.
Here’s another number that might fascinate folks, and may point towards two variables that are critically important for the 2017 gubernatorial race: (1) whether Republicans are doing well in the General Assembly, and (2) whether or not voters are satisfied or dissatisfied with the economy.
Overall, Virginia voters indicated they are pleased with the General Assembly (high-40s), though both parties have sizable camps of dissenters (just at 30 points). While this might indicate Gillespie may have a better-than-even shot at convincing Virginians that he is better suited to address the needs of the Commonwealth, McAuilffe’s numbers are relatively positive at 52/30 with Republicans and Democrats predictably breaking along partisan lines.
Here’s the catch. Number one concern of Virginians? Economy (23%) with unemployment and jobs within that concern at 13%. Second most important topic overall? Education… at 12% — with “education concern” at 8% and “funding” at a scant 2%. Northam has a Herculean task ahead of him to apply a salve among Republicans that there is nothing wrong with the Virginia economy, everyone move along… or if this is not a possible narrative, explain how he intends to repair and reform Virginia’s education system among a population more ready to believe Republican sincerity over Democratic explanations.
What does this portend? The ocean of undecideds are more than likely willing to settle on a Republican frontrunner at the moment. Challengers to Gillespie are perhaps symptomatic of the demonstrated angst over the economy and education reform, but are not in a serious condition (yet) to make the case that Gillespie is not qualified to solve them. As members of a positively-viewed General Assembly begin to settle on a choice, the more they rally behind Gillespie rather than muse on alternatives signals that the elected officials will simply follow the base towards a path of least resistance.
Gillespie still has an uphill climb against Northam; a Virginia-native and currently serving lieutenant governor who will have a practically unimpeded nomination path (General Assembly session notwithstanding). Yet for Gillespie, making the case that he is better able to address Virginia’s pressing concerns regarding the economy and education reform? Enters the arena a far stronger candidate than the Quinnipiac poll first offers.
Of course, this is no invitation to a coronation. Challengers will point towards Trump as an instance where coronations can be interrupted, but the problem will be that the Virginia press narrative cannot be duplicated in the same manner as a pervasive national media presence can. Smarter challengers may point towards Brat as a counter-example, but then one would have to point towards some already-established narrative that would undermine the poll numbers demonstrated here. A remarkably clever person might argue that the polls for Brat didn’t precisely indicate victory either… but again, without a determining narrative of discontent? Gillespie’s argument for the nomination remains a compelling baseline given the issues and conditions within the Commonwealth.