Democrats have failed to capitalize on anger over recent mass shooting, but family uncertainty and divisive politics in increasingly divided state could work in Democrats’ favor
The biggest race in Virginia’s 2018 midterm elections has taken an unusual turn. President Donald Trump teased Friday on Twitter he would hold a final rally for Ed Gillespie, who is facing off against Democratic challenger Ralph Northam to become the next governor of the Old Dominion.
Two weeks ago Trump congratulated Gillespie for the “courage and style” of his “fantastic campaign” and asked him to “come back to Washington”.
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Since then Virginia’s Democrat-controlled legislature failed to muster the two-thirds majority needed to override Republican governor Terry McAuliffe’s veto of legislation preventing statues of Confederate war heroes from being removed from state property.
McAuliffe, however, was successful in getting legislators to override a veto on the use of federal dollars to combat homophobia in the state.
With five weeks until Virginia’s elections, Democrats have failed to capitalize on the anger over recent gun violence and increased family uncertainty and alienation from the Republican party in a deeply divided state.
But the campaign has its own agenda: Virginia has become increasingly polarized and divided politically as Northam and Gillespie have engaged in increasingly acrimonious exchanges about race, equality and identity politics.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie described former KKK leader David Duke as ‘a harmless, good-hearted guy’. Photograph: Michael Calhoun/AP
The nation’s largest percentage of African American voters in a gubernatorial race occurred in the 1982 governor’s race between Chuck Robb and Gerald Baliles. Given the vote margins in both contests and the state’s demographics, a white candidate like Northam could see large gains in minority voting intentions.
In a noteworthy moment on Sunday, Gillespie celebrated Duke’s support by calling him “a harmless, good-hearted guy”, even though Duke led efforts to ban interracial marriage in Virginia at the height of the civil rights movement. It remains unclear if Duke’s support meant votes for Gillespie or vice versa in the Republican primary.
Virginia house of delegates member Robert Gomes told the Washington Post: “This is his guy, even though he’s a bigot and a hate-monger. If [Northam] is going to have his guy, he should have his guy be an outright racist.”
With polling suggesting Northam is leading in the gubernatorial race, his campaign was wary in embracing the Duke endorsement, which also is backed by former presidential candidate Steve Forbes.
Instead, Northam’s campaign has attacked Gillespie’s record of supporting the repeal of Virginia’s ban on race-based immigration laws and for supporting a position on local school desegregation plans in 1980 that helped gut a plan to desegregate state schools.
As a candidate for office, Trump has repeatedly stumped for Republicans around the country, often attempting to link Democrats to Hillary Clinton and her campaign failures. Although the president has not returned to Virginia in his first two years in office, the state is the largest of the 25 electoral college votes Trump won in 2016.
Trump’s sudden intervention in the race – something that hasn’t happened in more than a decade, said senior Democratic strategist Walt McLaughlin – could be part of a larger move to boost Republican turnout.
Gillespie also previously endorsed his GOP ally and Senate candidate Corey Stewart for governor in 2017. It also appears Trump may look to use rallies in the final five weeks to enhance his standing in other states where key congressional races are also taking place.
Democrats “haven’t reached the level of intensity that they need” to defeat Gillespie in Virginia, McLaughlin said. “We have a president who is going to do everything he can to help Ed, which should be useful to them on Tuesday.”
While Democrats were heavily reliant on African American voters in the primary, political experts predict that the African American voter turnout rate could have declined significantly given the primary and more recent policy battles and statements.
Asked about the potential impact of the president’s Wednesday night rally in Mount Vernon, Virginia, state Democratic party chairman Corey Stewart said: “When Donald Trump is here, we’re going to come out with fire.”