Virginia’s Democratic Hopeful Is Campaigning Hard—Against Trump

The party’s candidate for governor keeps bringing up that ‘narcissistic maniac,’ while the GOP talks jobs.


Republican Ed Gillespie, left, and Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam at a Sept. 19 debate.
Republican Ed Gillespie, left, and Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam at a Sept. 19 debate. PHOTO: BONNIE JO MOUNT/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Arlington, Va.

When Virginia’s gubernatorial candidates met in July for the 2017 campaign’s first debate, they discussed everything from health care to guns to energy. But one exchange dominated the headlines. “This race is about Virginia, but it doesn’t occur in a vacuum,” the moderator said as the event opened. “The eyes of the country are on the commonwealth this year watching to see how much of a factor is President Trump. ”

The Democratic candidate, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, seized on the moment, calling Mr. Trump a “dangerous man” and a liar. The first applause of the night came when the Republican nominee, Ed Gillespie, insisted that they concentrate on state issues. Yet the Trump portion was the primary focus of the national coverage, even though it took up only 10 minutes of a debate that lasted 90.

There’s always a tendency to view the Virginia governor’s race, nestled every four years between the presidential election and congressional midterms, as a harbinger. But it’s useless as a predictor: Only six of the past 13 gubernatorial winners have watched their party make electoral gains the following year, as the University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato has noted. Nonetheless, Republicans and Democrats are pouring millions into the campaign, which everyone seems to accept as a trial run for 2018.

The Democrats appear happy to turn the race into a referendum on Mr. Trump. Mr. Northam, a neurologist by training, cut a television ad in the Democratic primary diagnosing the president as a “narcissistic maniac” and saying “we’re not letting him bring his hate into Virginia.” Another warns that Mr. Gillespie would be “Trump’s top lobbyist.” It’s easy to understand this strategy: Hillary Clinton won Virginia by 5 percentage points last year, and Mr. Trump’s approval numbers here are in line with the national average—which is to say, bad. In a July poll from Monmouth University, 40% of Virginians said Mr. Trump would be a factor in their vote, including 26% who said he’d be a major factor.

Mr. Gillespie largely has avoided questions about the president. But he has suggested that Mr. Northam’s antagonism makes him a bad choice to represent Virginia’s interests before the federal government. “What are you going to do as our governor,” Mr. Gillespie asked at the first debate, “call the White House and say, ‘Please put me through to the narcissistic maniac’?”

In an interview late last month Mr. Gillespie dismissed the notion that the race should be about anything other than the candidates’ ideas. “This is the governor’s race,” he tells me. “It is about state issues.” When he campaigns across Virginia, no one asks about Mr. Trump. Constituents want to talk about how to improve public schools, address the opioid crisis, and bring more opportunity to their communities. “That’s what people ask me about on the trail,” he says. “That’s what they’re focused on in this election.”

A GOP insider familiar with the Republican National Committee’s internal polling agrees. Mr. Northam’s anti-Trump rhetoric just won’t work, he says, citing former Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell’s successful campaign eight years ago. “People look back at 2009 and say ‘Bob McDonnell ran a race against Barack Obama, ’ ” the insider explains. “But his big focus was ‘Bob for Jobs.’ It keeps coming back to these same kitchen-table issues: You need a good job, you need to be able to get a raise, you need to get the economy growing, you need your kids to get that in-state tuition slot.”

The trick for Mr. Gillespie seems to be engaging the party’s base—83% of Virginia Republicans still support Mr. Trump—without resorting to the sort of language that turns off moderates and independents. So far Mr. Gillespie has done a masterful job.

Take immigration: The GOP candidate is approaching the issue by taking on sanctuary cities. When Virginia lawmakers were considering a bill earlier this year to ban cities from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials, Mr. Northam, who as lieutenant governor presides over the state Senate, cast a tie-breaking vote against it. When illegal immigration came up in the second debate, held in September, Mr. Gillespie talked about the murder this summer of a young Muslim girl. Police believe the perpetrator, a member of the Salvadoran street gang MS-13, entered the U.S. illegally.

“When someone commits a violent crime like we saw, the heinous crime here in Northern Virginia over Ramadan, with a young 17-year-old woman beaten to death by a baseball bat by someone who was here illegally, we need to cooperate with authorities,” Mr. Gillespie said. “And that person needs to be deported.”

It was a defense of Mr. Trump’s favored policies, but also a heartfelt moment of compassion for a Muslim American attacked while walking to her mosque. Could you imagine something like that coming out of the president’s mouth?

Northam hasn’t responded by shifting his focus away from Trump, but he does appear to be softening his tone. In an ad released this week, Mr. Northam insists that “if Donald Trump is helping Virginia, I’ll work with him”—while still mentioning “Donald Trump” three times in a 30-second spot.

The question is whether Mr. Gillespie will pull it off on Election Day. The polling has been all over the place: a September survey showed the two candidates tied; another, released hours later, showed Mr. Northam up 10 points. Asked about the state of the race, Mr. Gillespie says: “Dead heat.”

The Monmouth poll from July found that if Mr. Trump weren’t a factor in the race, Mr. Gillespie would be ahead by 5 points. So the GOP bet is that when voters look the ballot up and down and don’t see Mr. Trump’s name, they’ll think of their local schools and jobs instead. “If we were running a presidential election, I’d say yeah, we’re in bad shape,” the Republican insider says. “But we’re not. We’re running a gubernatorial race.”

Mr. Griswold is a staff writer for the Washington Free Beacon.

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