Will Trump’s en­dorse­ment be a bless­ing or a curse?

Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend - - METRO - Jeff E. Schapiro jschapiro@Times­Dis­patch.com

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).

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