WASHINGTON - One year after Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election, two state elections, in Virginia and New Jersey, will take place Tuesday that will help test the political influence of his presidency.
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Voters in the Virginia and New Jersey will choose governors and other state officials today, and the results could give an early indication about how the 2018 mid-term elections, which will take place next November, might play out.
In New Jersey, Philip Murphy, the Democratic candidate for governor, is expected to beat Republican Lt. Governor Kim Guadnago by a large margin. If Murphy succeeds, as the vast majority of recent polling suggests, the Democrats will take back control of the governor’s mansion there after eight years of Republican control under Chris Christie, the sitting governor and former Trump confidante and supporter.
The more closely-watched election, at least in Washington, is the one taking place in nearby Virginia. Current Lt. Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat and physician and army veteran, is facing off against Republican Ed Gillespie, a former adviser to President George W. Bush. Current polls show a very tight race, with a slight advantage for Northam.
Virginia voted for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the last three Presidential elections, after being a Republican stronghold for decades. Yet the Democrats’ victories in presidential elections don’t necessarily mean that Northam will carry the state on Tuesday. In 2009, the state chose a Republican governor, and in 2014, Gillespie lost a senate race against Democrat Mark Warner by less than one percent.
The Virginia election presents a test for President Trump’s political agenda and messaging efforts. Gillespie, a former lobbyist considered close to the Republican party “establishment”, has adopted in recent months the populist and nationalist discourse of the “Trump wing” of the party in an attempt to win the election.
Gillespie only barely succeeded to win the party’s primary in June 2017. His opponent in that contest, Corey Stewart, ran a nationalist, Trump-mimicking campaign that promised to revive Virginia’s “Southern heritage” as a state that fought alongside the Confederacy forces in the Civil War. Stewart received the endorsement of far-right activists and came surprisingly close to beating Gillespie, who ran as a moderate, business-friendly “establishment Republican.” The margin between them was just 1.2% in Gillespie’s favor.
In the months that have passed since his slim primary victory, Gillespie has mostly been down in the polls, unable to close the gap with Northam. But in recent weeks, the race began to significantly tighten, after Gillespie adopted a new “Trumpist” campaign message, focusing on illegal immigration, gang violence and the controversial issue of Confederate monuments in Virginia.
“I covered a campaign event with Gillespie right after he won the nomination, at a Hispanic-owned grocery store not far from Washington,” recalled Josh Kraushaar, politics editor and politicial columnist at The National Journal, and a Virginia resident. “His message was that he’s a grandson of immigrants and that he wants to work together with he Spanish-speaking community. He wanted to be as inclusive and moderate as possible.”
A few months later, Kraushaar noted Gillespie’s campaign is using significant resources to portray the candidate as tough on crime and illegal immigration, and is attacking Northam on those issues. Gillespie has also promised to protect Confederate statues in the state. His Democratic opponent has fired back by using those statements to portray Gillespie as a local version of Trump, who lost the state by five percent in 2016 and is deeply unpopular among Virginia voters.
When Gillespie first adopted a more “Trumpist” tone to his campaign, some political pundits expressed doubt that the gamble would pay off. But polls from recent weeks have shown a clear movement in his direction, and a few of them have even given him a slight lead.
“Trump may be unpopular in Virginia, but that doesn’t mean the same is true for his entire agenda,” said Kraushaar. The Gillespie campaign, he noted, is running ads about gang violence not only in areas where there is high support for the president, but also in the more liberal suburbs of Washington, D.C., where Gillespie needs to do everything he can to cut Northam’s large margin in order to have a chance of winning.
At the core of Gillespie’s political gamble, however, Kraushaar said, is the realization that “he can’t win without the energy and support of the more populist wing of the party, the ‘Trump wing.’ That’s probably true even for a Republican running in a swing state like Virginia.”
On the Democratic side, the main challenge on Tuesday will be turn-out.
In all the local elections that have been held in Virginia since Obama became the first Democratic presidential nominee to win it in 2008, the level of participation among key parts of the “Obama coalition,” such as minority and young voters, was significantly lower than in presidential elections. If that happens again on Tuesday, Gillespie would be able to win. If young and minority voters show up, Northam’s lead should probably hold.
The re-emergence of the Democratic party’s internal feud between supporters of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, doesn’t help in that regard. Sanders, it should be noted, sent his supporters an email on Monday urging all of them to vote in elections in their states.
Daniel Barash, a Democratic political strategist, told Haaretz that “winning the governors races in New Jersey and Virginia is enormously important for the Democratic Party to regain its footing and confidence, and put it on a path to making major gains in Congress in next year’s election.”
He added: “The Democratic Party in-fighting that characterized the last few days was a distraction from what matters: turning out voters, winning in New Jersey and Virginia, and looking toward the future by focusing on what matters to people.”