What we learned from the Virginia primary

The establishment favorites won in Virginia Tuesday, but the results still sent shock waves through Richmond and Washington.

The state’s gubernatorial primaries were expected to feature a tight race on the Democratic side between Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and ex-Rep. Tom Perriello, while former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie was supposed to romp in his race against Donald Trump-inspired Corey Stewart, the former chairman of the president’s campaign in Virginia.

But Northam won easily and early, and it was Gillespie who barely squeaked out a win, sending fear through the heart of the Republican establishment that wrote Stewart off early. The number of ballots cast stunned operatives on both sides: Democratic turnout skyrocketed, reaching nearly 170 percent of what it was last time there was a contested primary in 2009.

It all sets up a titanic battle for the governorship in November, with Northam now favored over a bruised Gillespie.

Here are POLITICO’s five takeaways from Virginia’s contest:

It’s always about Trump

Gillespie barely mentioned Trump on the campaign trail.The Trump political apparatus didn’t lift a finger for Stewart. If anything, Stewart drew more mention in the press for his pro-Confederate statements than his ties to Trump.

Even so, the story of the night was Stewart’s shocking strength against someone with vastly more money, name recognition, and appeal to mainstream voters — suggesting that the Trump effect is alive and well in the state where he won the primary last year.

For mainstream Republicans, it may mean that their turnout models need tweaking, as they consistently underestimate the enthusiasm and turnout of Stewart-style Trump voters. For Gillespie, it means the coming months will likely have to be spent trying to win over voters he assumed would be with him, rather than tacking to the middle against Northam.

As for Democrats, the results reveal a clear path to success for establishment candidates: the best way to unite the riven party and prove your bona fides to skeptics is to attack the president and get as much distance as possible from him.

It’s more complicated than Hillary vs. Bernie

It may be tempting to read Northam’s win as yet another victory for the Democratic establishment. But the primary in Virginia underscored that the party’s new reality isn’t so clear-cut.

While some national pundits tried to cast the race as a redux of 2016’s Hillary Clinton vs. Bernie Sanders presidential primary — with Northam playing the role of insider favorite and Perriello as the insurgent — the fault lines were murkier than that.

Just as in New Jersey one week earlier — where Phil Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive won the Democratic gubernatorial nomination with the backing of some of Sanders’ biggest allies, including his son — the endorsement game didn’t line up along progressive outsider versus moderate insider lines. Neither did the policy platforms: both candidates ran on liberal platforms.

Northam may have had the support of the entire state Democratic leadership and Perriello may have had backing from Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, but many prominent local liberals were quick to rally behind the state’s no. 2 elected official, while the former congressman had the support of many Barack Obama allies.

A late-breaking endorsement from the Washington Post may have sealed the deal for Northam. Perriello’s own internal numbers showed him dipping 12 points in the week after, according to a Democrat close to the campaign.

Still, that doesn’t mean the Democratic Party is finally united and on the same page after its bruising 2016 primary and months of lingering proxy battles between Clinton and Sanders forces. The surprisingly tight race in Virginia suggested that the party simply has a different set of internal questions to resolve. Those include whether simply running with the “insurgent" label is enough to get the attention of sufficient voters to cause a real stir, and whether past breaks from party orthodoxy — like Perriello’s on abortion and gun control — are enough to doom a bid.

Democratic Party enthusiasm is very real

One defining characteristic of the Trump era has been the consistently surprising energy from Democrats eager to oppose him. That’s true among activists and also in states that have held elections this year. The high Democratic turnout on Tuesday continued a trend that was highlighted last week in New Jersey — where the party primary attracted higher-than-expected turnout even though the race wasn’t competitive.

Tuesday’s vote attracted well over a half-million Democratic votes, blowing past the party’s last competitive primary in Virginia, where 320,000 Democratic voters showed up.

Many state political operatives expected that a higher turnout election would swing the election to Perriello, but Northam coasted. And his win included higher-than-expected numbers in regions with more African-American voters, a major question mark heading into the vote.

That bodes well for his general election chances. If Democrats are going to mount a comeback in the Trump era, governor’s mansions must be a big part of it.

What does it mean for 2018 — and 2020?

Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, who has been facing the prospect of a tough GOP challenge next year, is breathing easier after watching Democrats turn out in such massive numbers while the Republican establishment pick struggled in a much-lower turnout primary.

Another big winner not named Northam or Gillespie on Tuesday: Gov. Terry McAuliffe, whose national ambitions got a boost from Northam’s big win.

The governor, a longtime national party operator and former Democratic National Committee chairman, was by far the most prominent outside figure in Northam’s campaign, featuring heavily in the lieutenant governor’s rotation of ads.

A big Northam win suggests that McAuliffe remains popular with the Democratic voting base, and burnishes the governor’s stature — a rejection Tuesday would have diminished his appeal as a 2020 prospect. Given that some of the party’s more liberal base is likely to regard him skeptically due to his deep ties to the party establishment and his years-long friendship with the Clintons, a strong victory in a battleground state affords him additional national credibility.

Northam now enters the general election as a favorite over Gillespie, giving McAuliffe a chance to campaign for his legacy while taking his advocacy for redistricting and his campaign work for other Democratic governors nationwide.

It’s worth noting that McAuliffe isn’t the only one whose 2020 hand looked stronger after Tuesday’s election: Stewart’s shock performance gave Trump some luster as well.

The ghost of Eric Cantor

Gillespie’s close call immediately reminded Virginians and political professionals alike of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s stunning loss in his House race three years ago — another establishment favorite stunned in Virginia by a come-from-nowhere insurgency.

In Cantor’s case, the win by now-Rep. Dave Brat foreshadowed a broader uprising within the party. In Gillespie’s case, the near-loss in a low-turnout, low-attention race now forces GOP leaders and lawmakers alike to reevaluate their positioning ahead of 2018.

After all, if Gillespie — a former national chairman and Republican stalwart who was forecast to win by at least 20 points — is vulnerable to an unexpected Trump-inspired challenger, is anyone really safe?

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