A must-win for Dems in Virginia

The stakes are high in Virginia on Election Day as Democrats seek to fend off what would be a devastating defeat in the governor’s race.

The race has become a fierce battle in its final month, as polls show Republican Ed Gillespie gaining on Democrat Ralph Northam.

A Democratic victory in Virginia would give the party its first major electoral win since President Trump took office, an opportunity to build much-needed momentum as the party aims to retake the House majority in next year’s midterm elections.

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But a Northam loss would be a major setback for Democrats, who currently hold the governorship and won the state in the 2016 presidential race. The latest polls suggest that Northam, Virginia’s lieutenant governor, still has a slight edge on his GOP rival. But Republicans believe Gillespie can rally their conservative base to pull off an upset.

“The concern for Democrats has to be that Republicans are pretty united on some of the issues that have taken center stage in this race,” Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia, said, citing issues like immigration and the controversial debate over protecting Confederate statues.

“If you are looking for a way to make sure more Republicans turn up than expected, these kinds of issues might be the ticket.”

Democrats originally expected to have an easier time keeping control of the governor’s mansion, thanks to Trump’s unpopularity in the state and changing demographics that are turning the state blue. But Northam’s deteriorating lead and recent missteps, with a series of Republican attacks, have Democrats worried.

Political observers following the race still give a slight edge to Northam, but they note that Gillespie has effectively shored up his conservative, pro-Trump base after struggling with the party’s grass roots during the primary.

Both campaigns have been working to mobilize their bases, since turnout typically drops in off-year elections. Northam and Gillespie have both promised jobs and economic growth, but they’ve also made more targeted plays to loyal party voters who are more likely to go to the ballot box in an off year.

Gillespie, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC), echoed Trump’s presidential campaign messaging by taking a hard stance on culture war issues and immigration.

Gillespie ran ads portraying Northam as weak on crime, arguing that his position on “sanctuary cities” enabled violence by gangs like MS-13. And he also condemned Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s (D) decision to restore voting rights for many felons, misconstruing previous Northam remarks to suggest he was in favor of restoring sex offenders’ voting rights. These ad campaigns ran predominantly in areas that are friendlier to Republicans, including southwest Virginia areas that voted resoundingly for Trump.

Democrats and Northam have accused Gillespie of running a “divisive” and “fear mongering” campaign, but a win or even narrow loss for Gillespie could serve as a playbook for future GOP campaigns.

“If this is a 50-48 Northam win here, this is going to be a strategy that the GOP candidates in 2018 are going to turn to, because it clearly has engaged Trump voters,” Skelley said.

“If Gillespie wins, in particular, this is going to be the new playbook: law and order, sanctuary cities, sanctuary cities, sanctuary cities.”

Still, Gillespie has kept Trump at arm’s length, never asking the president to come down to campaign with him. It remains to be seen if Gillespie’s decision to never fully embrace the president will ultimately hurt or help him.

But that hasn’t stopped Northam from trying to tie Gillespie to the president. Northam has run ads saying that Gillespie won’t stand up to Trump in more Democratic areas of the state, including Northern Virginia. It’s a move Northam hopes will motivate his own base in areas that voted overwhelmingly for Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham Clinton2016 pollsters erred by not weighing education on state level, says political analyst Could President Trump's talk of a 'red wave' cause his supporters to stay home in midterms? Dem group targets Trump in M voter registration campaign: report MORE.

The early voting total in Northern Virginia, which had more ballots cast than any other region as of Saturday, is likely a positive sign for Northam’s campaign. More than 180,000 people voted early statewide, which shattered the total from 2014, when roughly 123,000 early ballots were cast.

Democrats are still hoping for strong voter turnout, despite recent stumbles that have put Northam on the defensive.

Republicans criticized Northam over a controversial ad from the Latino Victory Fund. The ad featured minority children being chased down by a truck adorned with a Confederate flag and a Gillespie campaign bumper sticker, and it was eventually pulled after the New York City truck attack on Oct. 31.

Days after the ad was pulled, Northam aggravated progressives by saying he’d sign a bill banning sanctuary cities if one came to his desk. That prompted progressive group Democracy for America to pull “direct aid” for the campaign, while Gillespie’s campaign seized on what he called a “flip-flop.” Northam argues he’s always been opposed to sanctuary cities, which don’t exist in Virginia.

Given the close polls and national attention, both parties have rushed to downplay the race’s 2018 implications outside of Virginia.

“I don’t look at any election as a bellwether for what’s going to happen in 2018, especially a governor’s race that is more state-specific,” RNC Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel told The Hill on Monday while meeting with volunteers campaigning in Northern Virginia.

McDaniel acknowledged that Republicans face headwinds in Virginia after Clinton’s win in the state. Still, she touted the RNC’s data and ground game operation, which she said includes 100 staffers.

“It’s going to be a tight race. Ed is a great candidate,” McDaniel said. “It’s getting a lot of national attention, but it’s going to come down to the finish line.”

Scandals unfolding outside of Virginia could also play a role in the race. Special counsel Robert Mueller charged two Trump campaign figures last week, with a third pleading guilty to separate charges, while former interim Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairwoman Donna Brazile’s new book has reenergized concerns that the party’s 2016 presidential primary was rigged against Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersCarbon tax could give liberals vast power to grow federal government Poll: Gillum leads DeSantis by 4 points in Florida Judd Gregg: Two ideas whose time has not come MORE (I-Vt.).

Both McDaniel and DNC Chairman Tom PerezThomas Edward PerezClinton’s top five vice presidential picks Government social programs: Triumph of hope over evidence Labor’s 'wasteful spending and mismanagement” at Workers’ Comp MORE, who has been campaigning for Northam and other Virginia candidates ahead of Election Day, said they don’t believe their parties’ internal woes will affect the race.

“I say that as someone who has absolutely been on the road, knocking on doors,” Perez said in an interview on SiriusXM. “I saw incredible energy. People are concerned about the future.”