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In Virginia, Both Parties Use Trump To Turn Out The Base

Democratic candidate for governor, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, (L) shakes hands with Republican challenger Ed Gillespie after a debate at the University of Virginia-Wise in Wise, Va., Monday, Oct. 9,
Democratic candidate for governor, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, (L) shakes hands with Republican challenger Ed Gillespie after a debate at the University of Virginia-Wise in Wise, Va., Monday, Oct. 9,

There's no such thing as an off year in Virginia politics: it's one of two states, along with New Jersey, holding gubernatorial elections in 2017. Those races can serve as a testing ground for the political parties' messages ahead of the 2018 mid-terms.

The Virginia governor's race has been tight, with recent polls predicting contradictory results. The stakes feel especially high this year in the wake of the 2016 presidential campaign, which exposed divisions not only in the country as a whole, but in both major parties. Attack ads have escalated in recent weeks, as two candidates who were seen months ago as moderate, establishment figures within their respective parties have pitched increasingly dire messages to their core voters.

On the Republican ticket, Ed Gillespie's resume is arguably straight from the Washington, D.C. "swamp" that President Trump has promised to drain: he's a former Republican National Committee Chairman, George W. Bush Administration adviser, and lobbyist.

Ed Gillespie speaks at his rally in Fredericksburg, VA, on Nov. 1.
Sarah McCammon / NPR
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Ed Gillespie speaks at his rally in Fredericksburg, VA, on Nov. 1.

His Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, has sought to paint Gillespie as a Washington politician out to benefit himself, in contrast with his own background as a pediatric neurologist.

None of that bothers Trump supporter Laurie Posner, a retired paramedic from Stafford, Va. who came to hear Gillespie speak this week in Fredericksburg.

She wore a black "Make America Great Again" ball cap to the Republican get-out-the-vote event at the Fredericksburg Expo and Conference Center, a salmon-pink building about an hour from Washington, D.C. that usually hosts gun shows and craft fairs. Posner said Gillespie is saying what she needs to hear about issues like immigration.

"Everything that Trump wants for America, Gillespie wants that too," she said. "He will follow the agenda of our president. And that's what we need."

Gillespie has been working to energize Trump supporters like Posner, without turning off moderates by aligning too closely with the President. He's run controversial ads focusing on crimes committed by undocumented immigrants, but he's never brought his own party's sitting President to Virginia to campaign on his behalf.

On stage in Fredericksburg, before a nearly all-white audience, Gillespie alluded to the racial and identity politics that have popped up in the campaign. He referred to what he called a "vile despicable ad" from an outside group, the Latino Victory Fund, which depicted children from racial and religious minorities running away from a pickup truck with a Gillespie bumper sticker. The ad was quickly pulled in the wake of the deadly truck attack in New York City.

Gillespie criticized Northam for not disavowing it; Northam defended the ad and then said it wasn't the sort of ad he would have chosen to air, according to the Washington Post.

"That revealed that he does not just disagree with millions of his fellow Virginians; he disdains millions of his fellow Virginians," Gillespie told the crowd.

Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam speaks to business leaders in Chesapeake, Va. on Sept. 30.
Sarah McCammon / NPR
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Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam speaks to business leaders in Chesapeake, Va. on Sept. 30.

Meanwhile, Northam has also faced attacks from the left wing of the Democratic Party. In October, he came under fire after his African American running mate, Justin Fairfax, was left off some campaign leaflets passed out as part of voter mobilization efforts. The leaflets were distributed on behalf a labor union that had declined to endorse Fairfax because of his opposition to proposed pipelines through Virginia.

Northam's campaign spokesman has acknowledged that the matter was "mishandled," and Northam has since appeared with Fairfax at multiple campaign events.

This week he further angered some liberal activists when he told Norfolk TV station WAVY he'd be willing to sign a bill banning sanctuary cities for undocumented immigrants, and that "I've always been opposed to sanctuary cities."

As lieutenant governor, Northam cast a tie-breaking vote against legislation that would have banned hypothetical sanctuary cities in Virginia, even though the state doesn't have any sanctuary cities. As a result, Gillespie has accused Northam of casting a "deciding vote" in support of sanctuary cities, a claim that FactCheck.org has labelled "misleading" because of the complicated larger context around that vote.

The liberal group Democracy for America responded with a scathing statement calling Northam's campaign "disastrous and racist." The group's original founder, former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, denounced the move as "destructive and foolish."

In an effort to shore up support with core voters, Northam has been campaigning with prominent black Democrats, including former President Obama last month in Richmond. Campaigning with New Jersey Senator Cory Booker in the D.C. suburbs on Wednesday, Northam framed Virginia's governor's race as a referendum on Trump.

"We cannot let what we saw in 2016 – and now what we're watching in Washington, D.C. – we can't accept that as being the new normal," Northam said.

In this off-year campaign - where turnout is low and stakes are high – both parties are making the race about President Trump.

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