Democrat Ralph Northam will run for Virginia governor

Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam has entered the 2017 race for governor, a sign of how state election cycles are accelerating.

Northam, a pediatric neurosurgeon and former two-term state senator, made his bid for the Democratic nomination official in an announcement to supporters on Tuesday. The broad themes of his nascent campaign are familiar to Democrats.

"We need to continue investing in early childhood education," Northam wrote, "creating jobs in the new Virginia economy, protecting women’s reproductive rights and expanding access to Medicaid for 400,000 of our citizens."

Medicaid expansion has been a legislative priority for state Democrats since Terry McAuliffe's election as governor in 2013. But with a two-to-one majority in the House of Delegates, and a two-seat advantage in the Senate that was reconfirmed in this month's legislative elections, Republicans have been able to prevent the issue from advancing.

The announcement makes official what has been known and anticipated since February, when Northam told the Washington Post, "I'm planning for the next step — planning to run for governor."

This set up a potential primary fight with Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring, who told the Post he would “make decisions about future elections later.”

In September, Herring made a surprise announcement saying he would seek re-election to his current post, rather than challenge Northam.

Republicans already have at least one contender for the governor's job in former Republican National Committee chairman and 2014 Senate candidate Ed Gillespie. Gillespie narrowly lost to incumbent Sen. Mark Warner in that contest.

Other Republicans rumored to be considering gubernatorial bids include Rep. Rob Wittman (VA-1) and former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who lost to McAuliffe in 2013. Earlier this year, Wittman told AMI Newswire he would "never say never" to a statewide run.

A University of Mary Washington poll of registered voters released Wednesday shows Gillespie ahead of Northam 40 to 33 percent. However, when voters were asked if they had a favorable impression of either candidate, 77 percent said they had not heard enough about Gillespie to form an opinion. For Northam, the figure was 82 percent.

In commentary on the results, University of Mary Washington Professor Stephen Farnsworth, director of the University's Center for Leadership and Media Studies, noted, “With so many voters uncertain of what to make of either candidate, there will be a lot of efforts to persuade voters between now and November 2017.”