Virginia election likely a crucial test vote for Trump

 07 Nov 2017 - 11:08

Virginia election likely a crucial test vote for Trump
Virginia Republican gubernatorial hopeful Ed Gillespie hugs Jill Vogel, Republican nominee for lieutenant governor, during a rally on the eve of state elections, seen as a big test for US President Donald Trump, November 6, 2017 in Fairfax, Virginia. / AFP / Brendan Smialowski.

AFP

Fairfax, United States: Tuesday's vote for governor in the US state of Virginia has national ramifications as a test for the Republican Party and the divisive campaign style of unpopular President Donald Trump.

A win in this battleground state by Democratic Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam would signal voter rejection of Trump's economic policies and the politics of division which marked his 2016 race and have darkened his presidency.

It would also energize the Democratic Party -- currently plagued by infighting -- ahead of next year's congressional elections, and show Republicans that coddling the controversial Trump comes at a price.

Virginia voted twice for former president Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton carried the state in last year's presidential election that Trump won. 

But with polls showing Northam narrowly ahead, the gubernatorial race could go either way.

A victory for Republican challenger Ed Gillespie would likely validate Trump's aggressive style.

Gillespie pledged to be "a governor for all Virginians" at his final campaign stop, where about 100 people including volunteers crammed into a Republican Party office basement in Fairfax.

But shortly before Gillespie spoke, it was campaign manager Pete Snyder who acknowledged the race was more than a sideshow.

"The eyes of the nation are on Virginia," Snyder said. "Everyone is watching."

That includes Trump himself, who tweeted Monday that the "Virginia economy, under Democrat rule, has been terrible."

If Republicans turn out in force to elect Gillespie, he added, "it will come roaring back!"

Trump has not campaigned alongside Gillespie, and when the candidate was repeatedly asked why, he declined to answer.

- 'Trump on steroids' -

Gillespie has not played the Trump card in person, but his many campaign ads, which have fueled the debate on race, guns, illegal immigration and the fate of Confederate statues, signal clear alignment with the president.

"It's Donald Trump on steroids," current Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe told WQRX radio.

Gillespie, a former Republican Party chief, exudes establishment politics. But the 56-year-old is looking to harness Trump's populist nationalism where an increasingly diverse electorate is making it tougher for Republicans to win state-wide contests.

What happens in Virginia's political petri dish could impact Republican strategies nationwide come 2020, the next presidential campaign.

Gillespie has accused Northam, 58, of failing to curb gang violence, making it easier for sex offenders to purchase guns, and seeking to tear down statues honoring Civil War pro-slavery Confederate secessionists.

The monuments have become lightning rods in the national discourse on race, especially after white supremacists descended on Charlottesville, Virginia in August for a demonstration in which one of them killed a counter-protester.

For some voters, Tuesday clearly is a Trump reckoning.

"If I'm going to have any say in what's going on, the least I can do is vote for a governor who reflects the views that I have," Connor Dunwoody, a 25-year-old graduate student who voted early for Northam, told AFP.

Northern Virginia, which borders Washington, hosts a thriving economy with thousands of federal employees and a robust technology sector.

Aside from the capital Richmond and eastern counties, the rest of the state is largely conservative countryside. 

Trump's base consists of white voters without college degrees, but Virginia is well-educated. 

If Trump does not prove a drag on Virginia voters, it would signal his power to draw Americans to polls despite poor approval numbers.

Gillespie first must overcome the likes of 81-year-old Barton, a retired psychiatrist who did not give his last name, and said he would vote against Trump "any chance I have."

"He gives me nightmares," Barton added.