Will Trump’s endorsement be a blessing or a curse?
Ed Gillespie, the Republican nominee for Virginia governor, had every reason to preen after winning the endorsement of the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce, which four years ago threw in with Terry McAuliffe, Gillespie’s high- decibel Democratic equivalent as a Washington, D. C.enriched insider with time and money on his hands.
Like the endorsement by former U. S. Sen. John Warner, the on- again, off- again Republican, the chamber’s backing was supposed to be a sign to increasingly Democratic suburban voters that Gillespie isn’t some flaky fringe figure.
Rather, he’s a clear- headed adult you can welcome into your home without worrying that he’d put his feet on the furniture, break the china, overwhelm the plumbing or frighten the dog.
But glory is fleeting.
Eight days later, President Donald Trump took to his preferred communications platform, Twitter, to endorse Gillespie as a figurative wall against murderous immigrant Hispanic gangs, such as MS- 13.
It was a surprise — or so Gillespie insists — for a candidate who has spent most of the 2017 contest running from Trump because the president is less popular now in Virginia than he was when he lost the state to Hillary Clinton last November.
Barely 30 days before the election, that may be just fine for Gillespie.
If the Virginia race, despite external influences such as Trump, the GOP failure on health care and the Las Vegas mass shooting that recalled the horror of Virginia Tech in 2007, is ultimately a base election — that is, lowerturnout and dominated by hardcore partisans on both sides — the president’s endorsement could be a tipping point.
It could mobilize for Gillespie a swath of the GOP coalition put off by his Establishment credentials that include the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee, a prosperous stint
as a lobbyist for big business and as an aide to Bush 43— a pointed Trump critic who refused to vote for him.
But in a state where the Democratic presence is growing, nationalizing even local elections, the endorsement fully tethers Gillespie to Trump, allowing Ralph Northam to play the guiltby- association card in voter turnout and fundraising.
However, Northam can’t risk overdoing it. Ultimately, Virginians are choosing someone whose day job is keeping them safe, fixing roads, financing schools and protecting the social safety net — not jousting with the president.
It’s an approach adopted by Gillespie, largely out of self- preservation.
At the merest mention of Trump, Gillespie’s reflex — if only as a diversionary tactic — has been to double down on his emphasis on Virginia- specific issues.
About the same time Friday that he was fending off questions from reporters about the Trump endorsement, Gillespie’s campaign was blasting out a tweet on his proposed incometax cut, an idea that endeared him to the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce.
One of the privately conveyed deal- sealers for that Re- publican- heavy business group — that Gillespie would resist, as a threat to Virginia’s servicebased economy, a North Carolina- type bathroom bill that’s stalled in the legislature — was supposed to be a comfort to educated, moderate middle- class voters.
Instead, it stirred the suspicions of the Republican right, which wants to think that Gillespie is loyal to its agenda.
Don Blake, president of the Virginia Christian Alliance, publicly gave voice to those worries by way of one of the biggest megaphones around, The Washington Post. Blake told the newspaper, “It’s a very dangerous thing to speak out on positions that offend your base.”
That was only the first of multiple frustrations for Gillespie’s handlers, whose disciplined focus on the perilous balancing act that is this year’s Republican campaign reflects that of a candidate who— before becoming one— made a fat living advising others.
Next, a usually Republican tech industry group declined to make an endorsement, saying that both Gillespie and Northam were acceptable. It was the first time since its founding in 2002 that the Northern Virginia Technology Council refused to back a Republican for governor.
Later that day, Trump announced Gillespie as his preference for governor, in the process, invoking the racially tinged theme of immigrant violence that may arouse white rural voters but alarm those in the multi- hued suburbs.
It was one of those weeks for Gillespie.
He can’t afford many more like them.
The Virginia campaign— close in most public opinion polls, despite apparent outliers as the Post and Quinnipiac University surveys that show Northam leading Gillespie by double digits — is certain to take several more surprising swings, some Trump- induced.
But key fundamentals have been in place for some time: a Trump- hostile electorate concentrated in vote- rich suburbs such as Northern Virginia and Henrico County, outside Richmond, and the determination of Democrats to repudiate Trump by electing Northam, much as Republicans did to Barack Obama in 2009 by installing Bob McDonnell as governor.
That may explain Northam’s tilt left, even on issues on which his position was mainstream. On Confederate statues, Northam— a VMIeducated descendant of rebel soldiers and slave owners— shifted from keep- them- up to take- them- down.
Republicans now accuse him of betraying Virginia’s history.
Also, there’s been a steady geyser of outside money for Northam that’s more than off- set Gillespie’s early, $ 2 million advantage in total fundraising. Northam’s multimillion- dollar underwriters include Planned Parenthood, the abortionrights organization, former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, a gun- control advocate, and Tom Steyer, the green- energy billionaire.
This past Wednesday, Northam traveled to Manhattan, where Hillary Clinton opened the spigot of her cash machine in his behalf. Gillespie is looking to handsomely supplement his cash trove with appearances by Bush in Alexandria and Richmond on Oct. 16 at closed events with ticket prices ranging from $ 150 to $ 100,000.
Another possible plus for Northam: a surprising number of challenges to Republican incumbents in the House of Delegates. Democrats are contesting more than 50 of 66 GOP- held seats. That could generate additional grass- roots enthusiasm for the gubernatorial nominee, even in Republican districts where the outcome is ensured by hyperpartisan gerrymandering.
Still, the arc of the race — that Gillespie and Northam are fighting over roughly 500,000 swing votes, many in the outer suburbs of Washington— and decisions by the Northam organization to spend more money and time in metropolitan areas, including his home base of Hampton Roads, is dispiriting to some Democrats.
In the ordinarily red countryside, where after Trump’s victory, once- moribund Democratic committees reported a surge in new members, there was an expectation that Northam, given his Eastern Shore roots, drawl and self- effacing manner, could make inroads among rural voters.
That optimism has faded somewhat, though some Democrats hope Northam can hold down Republican margins in eastern Virginia’s rural counties, where Northam has been seen and heard since 2007, when he was elected to a Chesapeake Bay- spanning district in the Virginia Senate.
But there’s little doubt that Northam is gambling that the cities and suburbs, hotbeds of anti- Trump sentiment, can over- perform for him.
Consider his schedule since summer: Northam, by Republican reckoning, has passed on nearly a dozen traditional stops for candidates in both parties; that he’s sent a surrogate or appeared by video or Skype.
But the technology that worked for Trump— and by extension, might work against Gillespie — just might work for Northam.
Contact Jeff E. Schapiro at (804) 6496814. His column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Watch his video column and listen to his podcast on Richmond.com. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter, @RTDSchapiro. Listen to his analysis 8:45 a.m. Friday on WCVE (88.9 FM).