Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam has jumped out to a big lead over Republican Ed Gillespie in the race for Virginia governor as the two candidates prepare to meet Tuesday evening for a crucial televised debate.
Northam, a Democrat, grabbed the edge in the Quinnipiac University poll on the heels of a successful fundraising report, with less than two months to go until Election Day in this off-year contest that often foreshadows what is to come in the federal midterm cycle. The lieutenant governor led Gillespie 51 percent to 41 percent, including 50 percent to 37 percent among independent voters.
Possibly pushing Northam out to a lead in the Sept. 14-18 poll of 850 likely Virginia general election voters is President Trump's poor job approval rating. The survey found Trump, who lost the commonwealth to Democrat Hillary Clinton last year, with a lowly 39 percent approval rating. It was even lower among independents, at 32 percent.
Encouraging Republicans were two polls that showed a much more competitive race than Quinnipiac.
Suffolk University's survey of 500 likely voters, conducted Sept. 13-17, had Northam and Gillespie deadlocked at 42 percent and the Republican winning independents 40 percent to 26 percent. Mason Dixon had Northam up by just 1 percentage point, 44 percent to 43 percent. This survey of 625 likely votes, conducted Sept. 10-15 broke down the race per region as well. From Mason Dixon's polling memo:
"Northam is dominating in Northern Virginia, where he holds a commanding 57 percent to 30 percent advantage, but Gillespie is off-setting that with a cumulative 54 percent to 34 percent lead in the state's three primarily rural regions: Central Virginia/Shenandoah (53 percent to -36 percent), Lynchburg/Southside (52 percent to 35 percent) and Roanoke/Southwest (57 percent to 32 percent.)"
Tuesday evening's debate in Northern Virginia, a key battleground, offers both candidates an opportunity to take control of a contest that was roiled over the summer by a white supremacist march and counter protest in Charlottesville.
Northam raised $7.2 million in July and August, to finish with $5.6 million to spend on the campaign in its final months. Gillespie raised $3.7 million, to close with $2.6 million. Gillespie won the preceding fundraising period, and Republican operatives monitoring the race said they don't believe it signals an enthusiasm gap.
"Democrats are realizing they are desperate for a win. He got $3 million from unions alone," a GOP insider said. "It is partly about catching up to Gillespie, but I really think it's comes down to options for Democrats. Winning the New Jersey governor's race and keeping Virginia would be a good kickstarter for their 2018 efforts. If they lose Virginia, it could be seen as a big win for Trump."