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The Virginia Governor’s Race May Decide The 2020 Presidential Election


Ed Gillespie is the Republican nominee for Virginia’s 2018 governor race. Gillespie narrowly lost his race for senator in 2014 by 0.14 percent, and was tied with Democrat Ralph Northam in a recent Washington Post poll.

As the GOP currently has a record 34 governors in office, the outcome of Virginia’s race—apart from bragging rights for the winners’ party—would not upset the balance of power. The most important political development would be a major swing against the GOP in the concomitant congressional elections and the governors’ races in New Jersey and Virginia.

But history informs us that in mid-terms, the party that won the presidency nearly always has a substantial swing against it. It seems a result of the inevitably disappointed hopes of some voters, and perhaps a reluctance to give too much power to the party in office.

It’s also been true in the past that such setbacks for a president may have no effect on their second-term prospects: President Obama suffered massive congressional setbacks, but achieved a comfortable second-term election win.

Taking all of that into consideration, how could Virginia’s race for the governor’s mansion to have a crucial effect on the 2020 presidential election?

The Bill To End Virginia’s ‘Winner Take All’ System

The answer is in a bill that was put forward in the Virginia House of Representatives, one that would end Virginia’s ‘winner take all’ electoral vote system:

A bill to end Virginia’s “winner take all” system of awarding Electoral College votes was approved by a House subcommittee.

The electoral votes should be divided among presidential candidates based on how many of Virginia’s 11 congressional districts they win, the subcommittee of the House Privileges and Elections Committee decided on a 5-2, party-line vote.

HB 1425, sponsored by Del. Mark Cole, R-Fredericksburg, would give Virginia’s remaining two electoral votes to the winner of the state’s popular vote.

This system is used in Maine and Nebraska and is known as the “congressional district system.” Under the system, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump would have received six of Virginia’s 13 Electoral College votes, even though Democrat Hillary Clinton carried the state last fall.

As this map from 270toWin’s “Gaming The Electoral College” article shows, such a change in Virginia’s Electoral College votes would, on 2016 voting, have produced a Dem 7 GOP 6 split.

This type of vote allocation is currently in practice in Maine, which gave Trump one of its four votes, and Nebraska, which gave all of its five to Trump as per the map.

Why The Bill Hasn’t Yet Passed

Two other states, New Hampshire and Minnesota, had similar bills introduced this year. New Hampshire has GOP control of their Senate and House and a Republican governor, so it is surprising the bill died “Inexpedient to legislate.”

So too did a Democratic “partisan” bill which aimed to have New Hampshire join the “Electoral Compact,” i.e. have states assign their electors to whoever wins the nationwide popular vote, as a way to circumvent the Electoral College as set out in the Constitution.

Thus, if enough states were to join with 270 EC votes, there would be in effect a nationwide popular vote for the presidency.

In Minnesota, where the GOP also has a majority in the House and Senate, an Electoral College reform bill met a similar “Inexpedient” fate. However, unlike New Hampshire, Minnesota has a Democratic governor, and a veto would have been likely even if the proposal had passed both Senate and House. In Virginia, the proposal was withdrawn by its initiator, House of Delegates representative Mark L. Cole:

Cole pointed to the pending litigation and the General Assembly’s distaste for changing policy during lawsuits as one reason for dropping the effort.

He also said that even if the bill passed, Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe would veto it. “I think probably the time is not right for it, though I still think it’s a good policy and something we may pursue in the future,” Cole said.

The words “something we may pursue in the future” creates a very real possibility that successfully pursuing this electoral vote change could decide the presidency in 2016.

Republicans have a near two-to-one advantage in the House of Delegates, 66-34, and a majority in the Virginia Senate 21-19. Current Governor McAuliffe is term limited, and if the GOP’s Gillespie is elected in 2017, the stage would be set for Cole to reintroduce the bill, which would then be free from the danger of a veto.

Donald Trump won the Electoral College handily 306 to 232, but that is of course no indicator of how close the race might be in 2020. If it were a Reagan-type blowout, then how Virginia’s electoral votes were allocated would be of passing interest. On the other hand, if the race were more akin to the Gore/Bush 2000 campaign, any change to Virginia’s apportionment would become vital, if not the deciding factor. 

Anything’s Possible In Politics

There are numerous permutations, among which are Trump losing Pennsylvania—won by the narrowest of margins in 2016—and Wisconsin with Arizona adding to the sunbelt drift from the GOP.

That result, if Trump held the other states he won in 2016, would give him 265 Electoral College votes: five short of the required 270. At that point, Virginia’s split allocation of 7 Democratic 6 Republican would give him 271 votes and the presidency.

Clearly a lot of ducks would have to line up neatly in a row for such a scenario to eventuate. But the same was said for Trump’s 2016 Electoral College “inside straight” chances.

The first stage in this scenario would be the election of Ed Gillespie in 2017. If that happened, Mr. Cole could pursue his bill anew. If successful, that bill might make him an unlikely kingmaker. But, as the whole Trump phenomenon showed, absolute anything is possible in politics.