Virginia's heated election tests whether the 'Trump factor' is a political gift — or a curse

Virginia's election, the first statewide competitive contest since Donald Trump won the White House, is ostensibly a race between two mild-mannered moderates vying for the governorship. But some election watchers say it's all about Trump.

Donald Trump doesn't have to run in Virginia to be the centre of attention

From left: Virginia Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam, Democratic candidate for governor, U.S. President Donald Trump and longtime Republican leader and gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters, Carlos Barria/Associated Press, Steve Helber/Associated Press)

Virginia's election, the first statewide competitive contest since Donald Trump won the White House, is ostensibly a race between two mild-mannered moderates vying for the governorship.

But it's playing out more like a nasty referendum on the U.S. president, even if his name isn't on Tuesday's ballot.

For Democrats, prevailing in the purple state could deliver their first post-Trump election coup and send a message that the president's moment has passed. For Republicans, it could forecast a safe congressional majority come next year's midterm elections.

Election watchers say neither side seems quite sure how to handle Trump. 

Former President Barack Obama, left, and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Lt. Gov., Ralph Northam laugh during a rally in Richmond, Va. Political observers say Virginia's closely watched race for governor between Northam and Republican Ed Gillespie could be a bellwether election. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)

The neck-and-neck contenders for the governor's mansion — Republican nominee and former party chairperson Ed Gillespie and Democratic Lt.-Gov. Ralph Northam — also seem aware the bellwether race has an impact beyond Virginia.

Take, for example, the anti-Gillespie attack ads that started running last week.

In the controversial TV spot, minority children run away from a black pickup truck toting a Confederate Flag and bearing an "Ed Gillespie for governor" bumper sticker. As the truck's headlights pin them against a chain link fence, each child is jolted awake from a nightmare. Narration kicks in: "Is this what Donald Trump and Ed Gillespie mean by 'The American Dream?'" 

Critics say it's not difficult to imagine the response the ad was meant to elicit from Virginia voters that associate Trump with xenophobia.

It's telling, too, that Gillespie's name in the ominous voiceover tagline gets second billing to Trump, given that it's Gillespie who's running.

(The ad, sponsored by the Latino Victory Fund, was pulled last week following Wednesday's truck attack in New York City.)

Trump lost Virginia to Hillary Clinton by more than five points last year. It was the only Southern state he lost.

Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Washington, noted that Northam invited former Democratic president Barack Obama to help activate left-leaning voters at a rally in Richmond, but the Republicans have used "strategic surrogates" for Trump such as U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence.

"Trump's unpopularity in Virginia makes it difficult for Gillespie to take full advantage of what is usually a very valuable imprimatur," Farnsworth said. "Gillespie is trying to thread the needle to be supportive of Trump just enough."

Trump has backed Gillespie on Twitter: "Strong on crime, he might even save our great statues/heritage!" he wrote.

How Gillespie has handled the endorsement has been a challenge, said Robert Denton, a political communications scholar at Virginia Tech.

"A big question is what is the Trump factor? Will it activate more Democrats? It's a problem for Gillespie's campaign," Denton said. 

"Among self-identified Democrats, Trump is very much a factor" that could sway their votes, he added.

A narrow majority of Northam supporters (51 per cent) said their disapproval of Trump will influence their vote, according to a September poll by the Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University.

Gillespie needs the Trump Republican base to turn out. And yet, if he embraces the president too much, he risks alienating swing voters.

Gillespie himself seemed to sense this challenge, remarking in a debate last month, "I don't agree with everything the president says or tweets."

National political trends have tended to have a "marginal impact" on earlier Virginia campaigns as an early political indicator of how well the president is doing, said Mark Rozell, a Virginia politics expert at George Mason University in Arlington, Va.

But rarely like this.

"Trump has an outsized presence in this campaign, even for a president," he said. "Look at Gillespie's campaign, focusing so heavily on immigration, Latino gangs, and sanctuary cities. It's as though the Republicans said, 'Here's a page from the playbook. These are the hot-button issues that drove support for Trump last year. Here's your ticket for mobilizing the base.'"

For example, a Gillespie-sponsored ad attacking Northam accuses the Democrat of backing a "sanctuary cities" bill that "let dangerous illegal immigrants back on the street, increasing the threat of MS-13," a notorious Latino street gang.

Sanctuary cities — jurisdictions that limit their co-operation with immigration authorities — don't exist in Virginia.

Northam appears to be making the race as much about Trump as possible.

A Northam campaign flyer showed Trump and Gillespie superimposed over an image of tiki-torch-wielding while nationalists. The accompanying text reads: "Virginia gets to stand hate."

A print campaign ad for Ralph Northam, Democratic candidate in the Virginia gubernatorial election, features U.S. President Donald Trump superimposed over an image of white nationalists marching with tiki torches. (Ralph Northam campaign)

While Northam initially called the president a "narcissistic maniac," he softened his tone in a new TV spot last month, saying to camera: "If Donald Trump is helping Virginia, then I'll work with him."

Northern Virginia tends towards more liberal politics, southwestern coal-mining and rural areas lean conservative.

A data analysis by the University of Virginia's Center for Politics found that six out of 13 contests in Virginia's modern history didn't fit the bellwether model of a governor's success from one party predicting a favourable outcome for the same party for the next year's midterms.

If anything, the Trump factor in this race has evidently forced two dull candidates to step out of their comfort zones, said George Mason University's Rozell.

"At the beginning of this campaign, many of us thought, 'Isn't this great? We're going to have a couple boring, solid people,'" he said. "Neither of these candidates is very good at drawing attention to himself. And yet, it's reverted instead to something closer to what we saw last year."


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong


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