2021 Virginia governor’s race: Why we should watch it closely

By Leroy Cleveland - May 6, 2021

By law, Virginia governors can’t serve two consecutive 4-year terms so the state’s current governor, Democrat Ralph Northam, is barred from seeking re-election in 2021.

Even if you don’t live in Virginia, the outcome of that state’s governor’s race will likely be of tremendous significance to you if you’re entrenched in national politics.


Simply put, the 2021 Virginia governor’s race will give us a glimpse into what’ll happen in the 2022 midterm elections.

Will Democrats retain control of both chambers? Will Republicans wrest control of both chambers? Or will power be split?

At this moment, Democrats narrowly control both Houses of the U.S. Congress but Republicans are licking their chops for 2022 because, over the last 30 years, the party out of presidential power has usually made substantial gains in the midterm elections during a president’s first term.

Democrats, for instance, dominated the 2018 midterms and authoritatively regained the U.S. House of Representatives. And, of course, the 1994 midterms, during President Clinton’s first term, were very unfriendly to Democrats. The Republican Party won a net of 54 seats in the House of Representatives and eight in the Senate, capturing unified control of Congress for the first time in 40 years. They also picked up a net of ten governorships and took control of many state legislative chambers.

Although Clinton would be re-elected president two years later, the results of the 1994 midterm elections would generate formidable legislative obstacles for Democrats during the last six years of the Clinton presidency.

Back to the 2021 Virginia governor’s race…

A left-leaning purple state by some standards, Virginia is a microcosm of the nation. For example, Whites comprise about 69 percent of the state’s population while non-Whites account for about 31 percent. (The United States, racially, is about 67 percent White and 33 percent non-White). And while there are no major urban areas in the state, Virginia contains pockets of moderately-heavy populated areas that are highly Black, such as Richmond City, Hampton, Newport News and Norfolk County.

In addition, and of equal importance, the state isn’t short on suburban or rural communities.

In fact, the most populous part of the commonwealth, the northern tip, represents part of Washington DC’s sprawling suburbs. Thirty percent of the state’s population resides in that relatively small area. However, as a result, and much like America, Virginia’s predominately White rural jurisdictions still far outnumber, in square miles, suburban areas as well as those that are racially diverse and less rural.

2017 Virginia governor’s race

Four years ago, experts closely analyzed the 2017 Virginia governor’s race and, as expected, the results served as a prognostication for the midterm races the following year. Then Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam comfortably defeated Republican foe Ed Gillespie – a well-known, well-liked moderate who served as the 61st Chair of the Republican National Committee from 2003 to 2005. The election, won by Northam 54 to 45 percent, had the highest voter turnout percentage in a Virginia gubernatorial election in twenty years with over 47% of the state’s constituency casting their ballot.

Gillespie, despite being a non-controversial household name in Virginia and quasi distancing himself from Trump during his gubernatorial campaign, wasn’t competitive in his 2017 bid for governor as the Democratic candidate carried literal mandates in Virginia’s densely-populated DC suburbs represented by Arlington, Fairfax, Prince William, and Loudoun Counties.

Strength in the suburbs, of course, would not only propel Democrats to control of the U.S. House in 2018, it would also be the most significant factor in them winning the Senate and the White House in 2020.

And that’s exactly why the 2021 Virginia governor’s race is so vital.

The 2021 Virginia Gubernatorial Election will be among the first high-profile races since Democrats took control of the legislative and executive branches and will be watched and analyzed closely as a result.

If you’re a Democrat… A Democratic gubernatorial victory in the 2021 Virginia governor’s race shouldn’t be enough to ease your concerns. After all, the state, purple or not, has demonstrated a strong left lean over the past 20 years.

Although President George W. Bush carried the state in 2004, Barack Obama staged back-to-back wins in Virginia, Hillary defeated former President Donald Trump there in 2016, and Joe Biden won the Commonwealth by double digits in 2020. Also, the state’s two most recent governors are Democrats and the state hasn’t elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate since 2002 (John Warner).

Given Northam, the current governor, won the 2017 election by 11 points, Democrats should hope their new candidate wins this year’s race by the same or a greater margin, and certainly no less than eight percentage points. A five-point win would be too close for comfort and would be a sign of party attrition while a loss could spell d-i-s-a-s-t-e-r in 2022.

Who is watching closely?
Rest assured, experts, campaign consultants, and the candidates themselves will be watching the 2021 Virginia governor’s race closely, not only because it’ll probably be a predictor of the 2022 midterms but because they’ll want to see which messages resonate most with Virginia voters, especially those in the suburbs. Hence, if the Republican gubernatorial candidate focuses on Cancel Culture in her/his campaign and overperforms in the race, look for House, Senate and Gubernatorial GOP candidates to focus on that in their campaigns in 2022.

If you’re a Republican… A competitive race where the winner, regardless of her/his party affiliation, is determined by no more than five percentage points would serve as a GOP victory of sorts because it would show softening in support for Democrats, whether with independents or suburban moderates. And a GOP win, of course, would cement Republicans as the strong favorite to win both chambers of the U.S. Congress in 2022. In fact, a Republican win, even via a nail bitter, would give the GOP significant momentum heading into next year and possibly 2024.

Prediction: The 2021 Governor’s race is exactly seven months away, and President Joe Biden and the Democratic-controlled US. Congress has been in control for just 2 1/2 months so it’s difficult to offer a confident prognosis at this moment. However, given Biden’s +14 approval/disapproval rating (based on an aggregate of top pollsters), his favorable handling of the pandemic, and the apparent economic gains that are happening, Democrats seem poised to win the 2021 Virginia governor’s race by at least 8 percentage points and subsequently retain both Houses of the U.S. Congress in 2022.

Of course, much can happen between now (April 4) and November 2021, and 2022.