Virginia will be speaking for the nation
And the interpretations of this showdown are already baked in. If Democrats lose, they will no doubt try to discount the wider significance of the result by blaming Northam for whatever mistakes he and his campaign made.
It won't work.
This is a state that voted for Hillary Clinton last year. According to the Washington Post-Schar School Poll, 59 percent of likely voters disapprove of Trump's performance in office; only 38 percent approve. If Trump doesn't hurt Republicans in Virginia, where will he hurt them?
Along similar lines, Republicans will try to write off a Gillespie loss as inevitable, precisely because of those anti-Trump numbers. But in doing so, they will be conceding the central point at issue: That Trump has, indeed, become lethal to the party in many parts of the country. Mainstream conservatives would also learn that me-too Trumpian campaigns won't save them.
Republican members of the House and Senate in blue and purple areas will notice this. So will the party's leadership. Many now-timid GOP politicians might begin to worry less about losing primaries to pro-Trump candidates and more about how much damage their reckless, autocratic leader is doing to the party as a whole.
Local issues alone should inspire moderates and progressives to care about this choice. The candidates differ on taxes, climate policy, the fair drawing of legislative district lines, Confederate statues, Obamacare -- and guns. This last cause alone should be enough to bestir citizens to the polls. The National Rifle Association would be no less gleeful than Trump over a Northam setback.
This competition might have been a more congenial affair. Northam is a middle-of-the-road Democrat in a long Virginia tradition who inspires great loyalty among those who worked with him. Gillespie is a former lobbyist and GOP operative who can be quite amiable and almost lost the GOP primary because he was not in the Trump mold.
But Gillespie decided he could only win by injecting Trump's poison into his campaign. The antidote to noxious politics of this sort is to defeat it.
E.J. Dionne's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @EJDionne.
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