Wild and nasty Virginia election becomes a referendum on Trump

  • The Virginia governor's election has become nasty and totally unpredictable.
  • It's also becoming a referendum on President Trump.
  • Republicans and Democrats running for office in 2018 and 2020 are watching closely.
Democratic candidate for governor, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, left, gestures during a debate with Republican challenger Ed Gillespie at the University of Virginia-Wise in Wise, Va., Monday, Oct. 9, 2017.
Steve Helber | AP
Democratic candidate for governor, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, left, gestures during a debate with Republican challenger Ed Gillespie at the University of Virginia-Wise in Wise, Va., Monday, Oct. 9, 2017.

Anyone suffering withdrawal from last year's presidential election thriller can check all the wild and wacky boxes by focusing on the governor's race in Virginia. Election Day is next week, but it's already been a contest where anything can happen and anything goes.

Virginia's election for governor has traditionally been seen as an early bellwether for new presidents as it happens one year after the presidential election. Plus, since Virginia has become more of a swing state, the results will have more meaning than this year's other governor's race in a solid blue New Jersey.

What's more, since incumbents can't run for a second consecutive term as governor in the Old Dominion, the playing field is uncommonly even and more open to national political issues as opposed to local personality politics.

But that means one national personality is dominating more and more of the race: President Donald Trump.

President Trump's policies and his political tone have made more than a cameo appearance in this election between Democrat Ralph Northam and Republican Ed Gillespie. Gillespie has ruffled feathers by taking a Trumpian stand against illegal immigrant gangs and trying to tie the murderous MS-13 gang to policies Northam supports.

A Latino group supporting Northam countered with an even more controversial ad showing scared minority children being chased by a truck with a "Gillespie for governor" sticker and a Confederate flag. (That ad was pulled Tuesday after the deadly terror truck ramming incident in New York City). Earlier in the race, the Democratic Party in Virginia also sent out a mailer showing President Trump and Gillespie with pictures of white supremacists marchers inserted below them.

If the Virginia election wasn't a referendum on President Trump before those ads were aired, it certainly is now.

Another similarity between this race and the 2016 election is that the polls are all over the place. There are wild swings in different polls almost daily. One survey put out last week by Hampton University has Gillespie up by eight points. Another one a week later from Quinnipiac University had Northam up by 17. Overall, Northam is still favored by most of the polls. But with those kinds of wild swings, the race is essentially an unpredictable tossup. If the polling industry was looking to recover much of the credibility it lost in the presidential election with some kind of universally accurate prediction of this race, that chance has already been lost.

But the real question for the political class is what this election will mean when the votes are actually counted.

Here are the best answers to that question depending on the three potential outcomes:

If the Republican Gillespie wins, then it signals that allying with President Trump and some of his signature controversial policies is far from fatal for GOP candidates. Remember that Hillary Clinton beat President Trump in Virginia last year by more than five percentage points and current Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe is a Democrat, so any win for a Republican there would be a net gain for the GOP.

If the Democrat Northam wins, and wins by a better margin than those five points, look for Democrats to become more emboldened to focus on President Trump in the midterm elections over local issues. Republican candidates will also be more likely to try to distance themselves from the president if possible.

Of course, if the election turns out to be decided by a razor thin margin of about three points or less, all bets are off. Everyone will just have to go back to reading the other political tea leaves to determine their 2018 or 2020 strategies.

But what we do know now is that we have a too close to call contest that's heavily dominated by pro-Trump and anti-Trump sentiment. And while approval polls are what we've had to rely on since last year to gauge this president's support, we're about to get the results from the one kind of poll that really counts.

No one has seriously ever said: "As Virginia goes, so goes the nation." But after this coming Tuesday, we might be able to say that the Virginia election is a strong test of where the nation is right now.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

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