Hard-fought Virginia governor's race to test Trump's clout

By John Whitesides
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Republican candidate for Governor of Virginia Ed Gillespie checks in to vote at Washington Mill Elementary School in Alexandria, Virginia

Republican candidate for Governor of Virginia Ed Gillespie checks in to vote at Washington Mill Elementary School in Alexandria, Virginia, U.S., November 7, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

By John Whitesides

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A bitterly fought governor's race in Virginia leads a slate of state and local elections on Tuesday that offer an early test of Republican U.S. President Donald Trump's political influence and possible strategies for both parties in next year's midterm elections.

New Jersey voters are picking a new governor, to succeed outgoing Republican Chris Christie. Several big cities are selecting mayors, and conservative Utah is holding a special election to replace U.S. Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Republican who stepped down before his term ended.

In Virginia, opinion polls show Democrat Ralph Northam has a slight edge over Republican Ed Gillespie in a nasty governor's race that will offer clues about the U.S. political mood.

Gillespie, a Washington lobbyist and former Republican National Committee chairman, has kept his distance from Trump but has embraced the president's combative campaign style with hard-edged ads hitting Northam on divisive issues such as immigration, gang crime and Confederate statues.

The ads put Northam, Virginia's lieutenant governor, on the defensive and helped Gillespie gain ground in polls in recent weeks in the Southern state, where Democrat Hillary Clinton beat Trump by 5 percentage points in last year's presidential race.

"The momentum is clearly on our side," Gillespie told Fox News on Monday.

Gillespie, however, has not won over Nick Peacemaker, who works in marketing and lives in Democratic-leaning Arlington. Peacemaker considered himself a Republican until Trump won the party’s nomination last year. Clinton won 77 percent of the vote in Arlington County, the most densely populated part of Virginia, nestled against the border of Washington, D.C.

"Trump talks about draining the swamp, but Gillespie kind of is the swamp," Peacemaker, who voted for Clinton, said on Tuesday.

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Trump’s influence on the race is significant even though the president was not highly engaged until the campaign's final days, Peacemaker said. After winning the Republican gubernatorial nomination, Gillespie seemed to shift closer to Trump's policies, Peacemaker added.

ANOTHER SETBACK FOR DEMOCRATS?

A Gillespie win would be the latest in a series of setbacks for Democrats, who lost four contested congressional special elections earlier this year despite grassroots liberal enthusiasm for resisting Trump.

Democrats fear such a victory would give Republicans a green light to exploit similar divisive cultural issues across the country next year, when all 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and 33 of the Senate's 100 seats will be up for election. Republicans now control both chambers.

"Gillespie's ads played on every fear and dark impulse, and if we lose, we are going to see a lot more of that," Democratic strategist Dane Strother said.

Gillespie rejected that characterization and said he was gaining ground against Northam because of his substantive policies and plans to bolster Virginia's economy. Trump, who endorsed Gillespie but never campaigned for him, backed that view on Monday.

"The state of Virginia economy, under Democrat rule, has been terrible. If you vote Ed Gillespie tomorrow, it will come roaring back!" he wrote on Twitter.

In response, Northam tweeted that voting for him was "the best way to refute Trump's lies." The Virginia economy had an unemployment rate of 3.7 percent in September, better than all but 13 states and below the national rate of just over 4 percent.

Trump's argument resonated with Lee Hernandez, who works in finance and voted for Gillespie because he found the Republican's message on economic improvement more persuasive.

Hernandez, a swing voter who also lives in Arlington, said he was bothered by Northam's emphasis on "keeping Virginia blue (Democratic) or making it blue, and that really was a big turnoff."

Gillespie's campaign has blasted an ad aired by an outside pro-Northam group - quickly taken down - that showed a white man in a pickup truck with a Confederate flag and a Gillespie sticker chasing down minority children.

In the governor's race in Democratic-leaning New Jersey, Democrat Phil Murphy, a former investment banker and U.S. ambassador to Germany, has a comfortable lead in polls over Republican Kim Guadagno, the state's lieutenant governor, who has been hampered by her association with the unpopular Christie.

In local races, Democratic Mayors Bill de Blasio in New York and Marty Walsh in Boston are expected to cruise to re-election, while Detroit, Atlanta, Charlotte, North Carolina; and Seattle also will pick mayors.

In Utah, Republican John Curtis, a strong Trump supporter, is a heavy favorite to fill the congressional seat left vacant by Chaffetz.

(Additional reporting by Ginger Gibson; Writing by John Whitesides and Lisa LambertEditing by Caren Bohan, Peter Cooney and Jonathan Oatis)