White House wades into Virginia governor's race

White House wades into Virginia governor's race
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The White House has waded into Virginia's closely-watched governor's race, as Republican nominee Ed Gillespie seeks to energize conservatives by leaning heavily into President Trump's culture wars playbook. 

Vice President Pence is set to campaign with Gillespie on Saturday, roughly one week after Trump accused Democratic opponent Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam of "fighting for" the MS-13 gang. Former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon is also reportedly urging Gillespie's former rival to endorse him months after an unexpectedly close primary.

The White House's foray into the race presents a challenge for Gillespie. He needs to rally the conservative base for what’s expected to be a lower-turnout election. But at the same time, he has to keep some distance from Trump, who remains highly unpopular in Virginia and lost the state by 5 points in 2016.

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With turnout historically lower in off-year elections compared to presidential cycles, some Republicans believe having Trump come stump for Gillespie could be worth the risk if that means exciting the base to show up on Nov. 7 in the race to replace Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D).

“The enthusiasm gap between Democrats and Republicans is significant enough that they need to get all Republicans out there to close this race,” said Tom Davis, a former GOP congressman who serves as a government affairs director at Deloitte. “I don’t think [Gillespie] has a choice but to try to get Trump in to maximize the base." 

“Republicans in Georgia faced this dilemma,” he continued, referring to a contentious House special election from earlier this year. “[GOP nominee] Karen Handel had Trump come in and she won. But in [Virginia] that is pretty well-defined now, you’ve got to maximize your vote. It’s hard to do that being lukewarm on Trump.”

It’s still a big question mark about whether Trump will hit the campaign trail for Gillespie. Trump’s former Virginia campaign chairman told the Washington Post that the White House is in “very serious talks” with Gillespie’s campaign about Trump campaigning with him. But so far, Gillespie is focusing on Pence stumping for him.

"I appreciate President Trump sending my friend Vice President Pence back to Virginia in the homestretch of this critically important election and look forward to being with him in Abingdon on Saturday,” Gillespie said in a statement about Saturday’s rally.

Trump’s only involvement so far in the race has been a tweet where he invoked the MS-13 gang and sanctuary cities to slam Northam and rally supporters for Gillespie. 

Gillespie never addressed Trump’s tweet on his Twitter. When asked about it in a Washington Post interview, the Virginia Republican said he didn’t ask for the president’s endorsement — but also added that he “didn’t ask [Trump] not to endorse.”

That has frustrated some conservatives who are disappointed that Gillespie has waffled on tying himself to Trump.

Still, Gillespie has played to the GOP’s base of Trump supporters by focusing on issues surrounding identity politics, including immigration and protecting Confederate monuments.

Gillespie ran ads last month seeking to tie Northam to crime surrounding MS-13 and attacked his opponent over sanctuary cities. Gillespie’s decision to lean into these issues indicates his existing problems consolidating the GOP base, political observers say.

“Gillespie has not strongly secured his own base vote as much as he should have by this point,” said Mark Rozell, political science professor at George Mason University.

Rozell added that playing up cultural and social issues “is trying to ratchet up the base vote for himself. In elections that are driven by turnout intensity, these issues are stoking a lot of strong feelings on both sides.”

While making more overtures to the base could potentially alienate more moderate and independent voters, observers say it’s a strategy that has worked in past governor races in Virginia where the electorate is smaller and both parties’ more ardent voters show up.

In 2013, Republican nominee Ken Cuccinelli played to his base and ended up vastly outperforming polls, only losing to McAuliffe by less than 3 points. 

Another way that Gillespie could shore up his base is with an endorsement by former primary rival Corey Stewart, who once refused to do so after the June primary. The Washington Post reported that the two are in talks for an endorsement, and Stewart commended Gillespie for “moving further to the right.”

Stewart has been an outspoken defender of Confederate statues and frequently labeled Gillespie as “Establishment Ed” during the primary, a charge Northam picked up in the general election race by slamming Gillespie over his previous lobbying work.

Public polling has consistently showed Northam leading in the mid-to upper-single digits, with one outlier poll from earlier this month that had the lieutenant governor up by 13 points. Northam’s internal polling is fairly consistent with public polling, which shows him in the low to middle single digits, according to a Virginia Democrat familiar with the campaign.                                                                                     

Gillespie isn’t the only one getting some help on the campaign trail from political heavyweights. Former Vice President Joe BidenJoseph (Joe) Robinette BidenKamala Harris picks Baltimore as headquarters for potential 2020 campaign: report Congress should elevate those trapped in the gap – support ELEVATE Act Sen. Casey says he won't run for president in 2020 MORE will campaign with Northam on Saturday, while former President Obama will stump with him next week in Richmond.

Historical trends tend to favor Democrats in Virginia. The party out of power in the White House has won the Virginia governor’s mansion in every election since 1977, with the exception of McAuliffe’s 2013 win. But Northam’s challenge will also be making sure there’s not a significant drop-off in turnout after the 2016 presidential election. 

Still, GOP strategists point out that Gillespie has already run a statewide race before — he came unexpectedly close to unseating Democratic Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerDems revive impeachment talk after latest Cohen bombshell Hillicon Valley: Senate panel subpoenas Roger Stone associate | Streaming giants hit with privacy complaints in Europe | FTC reportedly discussing record fine for Facebook | PayPal offering cash advances to unpaid federal workers Senate panel subpoenas Roger Stone associate Jerome Corsi MORE in 2014. 

Davis, the former GOP congressman, emphasized that with about a month left and millions of more dollars expected to flood into the state for both candidates, campaigns still matter and getting out their voters will be key.

“If Northam can simply hold the Democratic Party base and Democratic-leaning voters in a state moving increasingly into the blue column, he wins,” Rozell said. “If the base isn’t enthusiastic and Gillespie ratchets up base voters, it could end up being a nail biter.”