RICHMOND, Va. — Candidates in the country’s only two races for governor are in the final sprint before an Election Day that promises to illustrate how much — or how little — things have changed in the age of Trump.
The Nov. 7 races in New Jersey and Virginia are the first gubernatorial contests since President Donald Trump’s surprise victory last year. The president has shaped both contests without campaigning in either, but the final effect is still unclear.
Will anti-Trump energy trigger more votes for Democrats? Will Trump supporters turn out for moderate Republicans who keep the president at arm’s length but run hard-edged attacks on social issues such as so-called “sanctuary cities?” Have voters in both parties tuned out, exhausted by the president’s tumultuous first year?
The stakes are high as both parties seek momentum ahead of next year’s mid-term elections. Democrats haven’t won any special elections for Congress this year and the next Virginia governor will have a major say in the state’s next round of redistricting, when Congressional lines are drawn. Republicans are looking for a boost as their party is beset by intraparty turmoil between Trump and key Republicans in Congress.
Swing-state Virginia is expected to be the much closer race, with most polls showing Republican Ed Gillespie within striking distance of Democrat Ralph Northam. Virginia is the only Southern state the president didn’t win and there are signs anti-Trump sentiment is high.
“Even though maybe issues-wise I lean closer to Gillespie, I’m more likely to vote for Northam just because of the Trump administration,” said Lee Cleveland, a web manager from Northern Virginia who usually votes GOP. “As a Republican, I’m that infuriated.”
Gillespie rarely mentions Trump and downplayed his twitter endorsement. But Gillespie has tried to excite Trump supporters with sharp-elbowed ads on immigration and Confederate statues, while also appealing to the more moderate with a focus on taxes and other pocketbook issues.
It’s an odd look for Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman who has advocated for a more welcoming GOP.
Northam, in running to succeed of term-limited Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, also has struggled with Trump. Northam has called the president a “dangerous” man and a “narcissistic maniac,” while also vowing to work with the president on issues important to Virginia, a state heavily reliant on defense spending.
Not every Democrat has been pleased. Northam has gotten little love from some in the party’s liberal wing who enthusiastically backed his populist opponent, former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello, in the primary. And some Northam supporters worry the low-key pediatric neurologist fails to excite minority voters who are crucial to Democratic success in Virginia but often drop away in off-year elections. To boost enthusiasm, Northam has brought in high-profile African-American surrogates, including former President Barack Obama and U.S. Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris.
In New Jersey, Democrat Phil Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive and Obama administration ambassador to Germany, holds a double-digit lead over Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno. Murphy has never held office though he once served as the Democratic National Committee’s finance chairman and won the primary aided by $16 million of his own cash.
A liberal who supports hiking the minimum wage to $15 hourly and taxing millionaires at a higher rate, Murphy has relentlessly saddled Guadagno with two-term GOP Gov. Chris Christie, under whom she served as top deputy. Murphy also promised to appoint an attorney general who’d push back against Trump’s immigration policies and to make New Jersey a sanctuary state “if need be.”
Christie, whose job approval is in the teens, is term-limited.
Like Gillespie, Guadagno has tried to focus on cutting taxes and banning so-called “sanctuary cities,” a vague term generally signifying communities that limit cooperation with federal immigration activities.
Guadagno ran a 30-second TV spot that says Murphy will “have the back” of Jose Corranza, who emigrated illegally from Peru and was convicted in 2007 of the slayings of three college-bound students in Newark. Murphy had said he would have illegal immigrants’ backs, but when asked about criminals specifically said the crimes were “heinous” and that they ought to be held accountable by law.
It’s a message that’s allowed Guadagno, who said she wouldn’t support Trump last year after Access Hollywood tapes surfaced with Trump talking about making unwanted sexual advances toward women, to connect with the president’s supporters.
Kurt Epps, a retired teacher from Perth Amboy, New Jersey, who voted for Trump in 2016, said Guadagno’s attacks have been effective at scaring Democrats.
“I think they’re scared to death of a red — or even a pink — Jersey taking the place of the deep blue that exists now,” Epps said.
Catalini reported from Trenton, New Jersey.