Virginia voters hit the polls Nov. 7 for a high stakes governor’s race, one of only two in the country and the first competitive statewide contest since Donald Trump took office. He hasn’t campaigned in the race, but Trump is a dominating factor. (Nov. 2) AP
WASHINGTON — President Trump hasn’t hit the campaign trail in Virginia’s gubernatorial race, but his presence is clearly felt in the first competitive statewide contest since his election last year.
The Nov. 7 election battle between Virginia’s current Democratic lieutenant governor, Ralph Northam, and former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie could be a bellwether for Trump’s impact on midterm elections across the country next year.
Northam held a narrow 4-point lead over Gillespie among likely Virginia voters who are either decided or leaning toward a candidate in a Suffolk University poll released Thursday. That lead is within the margin of error of plus-or-minus 4.4 percentage points for the poll. Trump’s approval rating stands at 37% in the state and 63% of survey respondents said the country is on the wrong track, according to the poll.
Northam, 58, a pediatric neurologist and former Army physician, said his election would “absolutely” be a repudiation of Trump. He said he wants to take the state to the next level on jobs, education and health care while promoting an “inclusive” Virginia.
“People are watching to see what direction this country is going to go in,” Northam told USA TODAY.
But Gillespie, seen as an establishment Republican who has distanced himself from Trump, said the race is all about Virginia and fixing its “lagging” economy.
“I’ve got 20 different specific detailed policy proposals to make life better for all Virginians, and the lieutenant governor just doesn’t have that,” said Gillespie, a former lobbyist who also served as counselor to George W. Bush.
Save for several tweets, Trump has been largely missing from the race.
But nearly a third of likely Virginia voters say Trump is a factor in their vote for governor, and 45% say they see their vote for governor as a way to send a message — disapproval for 28% and approval for 17% — to Trump and the Republicans who control Congress, according to a survey released Oct. 18 by the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. A quarter of independents said they want to send a message of disapproval.
“If that’s true, that is a pretty strong headwind for any Republican to try to deal with in a battleground state or a battleground congressional district,” said Quentin Kidd, director of the center.
National parties have poured money and staff into the race, while former presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, former vice president Joe Biden and Vice President Pence have campaigned for the candidates.
Democrats would be “demoralized,” for a while at least, if Northam lost in a state that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton carried by 5 points, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. If Gillespie loses, he said, “it’s going to signal to some Republicans that Trump is quite a burden to bear and that will increase their worries in 2018.”
The race to replace term-limited Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, is one of two statewide elections on Nov. 7. In New Jersey, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy appears safely ahead, with a 15.5-point lead over Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, according to a RealClearPolitics average of recent polls.
Virginia is a good test for whether Democrats can convert Trump resistance into votes.
“The question is, has the left really got some new energy level or is it just a bunch of hype by a small number of people?” said Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus who has campaigned for Gillespie. “If (Gillespie) wins, I’d say that’s really, really good news for the Republican brand.”
State Sen. Creigh Deeds, the Democratic nominee for governor in 2009, said Democrats are “energized” to ensure they can counterbalance the GOP-led General Assembly and Trump.
“They understand that what’s seen here is the first reaction to Donald Trump in the White House,” he said.
Trump’s influence is evident in some of the campaigns’ sharpest negative ads. In an apparent appeal to Trump’s base, Gillespie’s ads portray Northam’s policies as “risky” and “dangerous” on public safety and immigration. One blamed Northam for increasing the threat of the gang MS-13 — a key focus of Trump’s — because Northam, as lieutenant governor, cast a tie-breaking vote against legislation to ban “sanctuary cities,” which decline to enforce federal immigration laws.
Trump weighed in, tweeting Northam is “fighting for the violent MS-13 killer gangs & sanctuary cities.”
Northam said the allegation he’s soft on crime is “inaccurate” and “despicable.”
“(Gillespie’s) campaign is scaring people,” Northam said in an interview. “And it’s promoting the hatred and the bigotry that we’re seeing coming out of Washington.”
But Democrats, too, are using scare tactics as they try to link Gillespie to Trump. Northam authorized a provocative mailer by Virginia Democrats using images of white nationalists marching with tiki torches in Charlottesville and casting the election as a chance “to stand up to Trump, Gillespie and hate.” Gillespie condemned white supremacists, but Northam said Gillespie should have denounced Trump’s “lack of leadership” following the violent protests over a Confederate statue there in August.
Charlottesville’s newspaper, The Daily Progress, accused Northam of politicizing the tragedy.
“That mailer probably wasn’t in the best taste,” Deeds said, but Republicans have tried to “tar and feather” Northam.
Northam’s campaign did not denounce an ad by the Latino Victory Fund political action committee, showing minority children being chased by a truck adorned with a Gillespie bumper sticker and a Confederate flag. The PAC ultimately pulled the ad, which the campaign said was appropriate and that Northam would not have run it.
Gillespie told USA TODAY, “We have a ton of momentum here in the home stretch and I think that’s clear from the tactics that we’ve seen from Lt. Gov. Northam and his allies, the desperation tactics, the reprehensible fear-mongering, and just the disdain they show for the voters of Virginia. It’s pretty clear they’re panicked.”
While Northam won his primary handily, Gillespie beat his Trump-style opponent Corey Stewart by only a point. Stewart, Trump’s former Virginia chairman who is now running for Senate, said Trump supporters are “bewildered” that Gillespie seems to be “running from the president” and they’re waiting for a signal he’ll embrace Trump’s agenda. They want to hear him speak more about cracking down on illegal immigration and preserving Confederate monuments, he said.
“If he wants to wrap up the race, he would embrace the president and he would become even more conservative, especially on the stump, on the key issues,” Stewart said.
Gillespie said he’ll have a good relationship with Trump that will help Virginia if he’s elected, while Northam won’t. He declined to say whether he has invited Trump to the state.
“The president obviously is supporting me and I appreciate that very much but we don’t disclose our campaign strategy to the media,” he said.
Gillespie didn’t retweet or promote Trump’s endorsement tweets. And instead of campaigning recently with members of the GOP ticket at a Bikers for Trump event, Gillespie was with Ohio Sen. Rob Portman in Northern Virginia, detailing figures on Virginia’s economic growth and wage rates at a crowded event in a Vietnamese restaurant. That economic message resonates with Genaro Pedroarias, a defense contractor from Great Falls, Va.
“I’m a supporter of President Trump’s and I think he’s doing a very good job, but this is an election about Ed Gillespie versus Ralph Northam,” said Pedroarias, who chairs the Republican National Hispanic Assembly of Virginia. “The overall feeling in Virginia is we’ve survived the last eight years of the Obama economy but we want to go back to the years where we were really booming.”
Northam supporter Alice Hayes, a retired manager of a women’s shelter, said Trump is not the reason for her support of Northam. She wants to see Democrats in office who will fight for an expansion of Medicaid.
“But I wouldn’t mind (Northam’s) win being a reflection against Trumpism,” she said.