VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - Republican Ed Gillespie and Democrat Ralph Northam both claim momentum is on their side as voters head out on Election Day in Virginia's high-stakes, closely watched race for governor.
Virginia is one of only two states electing a new governor this year, and the contest is viewed by many as an early referendum on President Donald Trump's political popularity.
Democrats are eager to prove they can harness anti-Trump energy into success at the polls, while Republicans are looking to show they have a winning blueprint in a blue-leaning state. Most public polls have shown a close race to succeed Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat who is term limited.
Early voter numbers are up in Virginia’s closely watched race for governor while polling places around the state are reporting a steady turnout.
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Friendly crowd greets Northam at polling place
A friendly crowd greeted Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam and his wife as they arrived at their local polling station to cast their ballots.
Northam hugged cheering voters Tuesday morning at a Norfolk community center, thanking them for their support during the closely watched race. A few dozen voters were there.
He and Republican Ed Gillespie have been locked in a battle to succeed Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who cannot seek a second term.
Virginia is one of only two states electing a new governor this year, and the contest is viewed by many as an early referendum on President Donald Trump’s political popularity.
Democrats are eager to prove they can harness anti-Trump energy into success at the polls, while Republicans are looking to show they have a winning blueprint in a blue-leaning state.
National Democrats, still stinging from last year's presidential race, are hoping a strong showing by Northam will help motivate the party ahead of the 2018 mid-term elections. A string of high-profile surrogates, including former President Barack Obama, have campaigned on his behalf.
Some volunteers helping Northam said Trump's victory had spurred them to get involved in a political campaign for the first time.
"Really, a lot of us feel unsettled," said Kee Jun, a Korean-American from Northern Virginia who helped introduce Northam to voters at a restaurant Saturday. "I feel an obligation to my children, Virginia residents and the nation."
But some Republicans said they felt Trump's victory has energized their party in a lasting way that will help Gillespie.
"People realize they can have a voice and can make a difference in an election," said John Ancellotti, a retired Coast Guard captain and federal agent who attended a Gillespie rally Sunday.
Gillespie, a White House adviser to President George W. Bush and former lobbyist, has kept Trump at a distance and has not campaigned with him. But in a bid to rally Trump supporters, Gillespie has run hard-edge attacks ads against Northam focused on immigrants in the country illegally and preserving Confederate statues. The approach has drawn bipartisan criticism, but Gillespie supporters say he's been unfairly maligned for taking positions that are popular with voters but may not be politically correct.
"Ed is willing to take those arrows," said U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who campaigned with Gillespie on Sunday.
Former Trump strategist Steve Bannon said Saturday that Gillespie's tack to the right will help him "pull this out," according to the pro-Trump website Breitbart News.
Gillespie did not mention the president during Sunday rallies in Williamsburg and Virginia Beach, instead focusing his message on his plan to boost the state's economy.
Republicans said a controversial last-minute ad by the Latino Victory Fund, which features a Gillespie supporter chasing down children of different minority groups in a pickup truck, has helped galvanize Gillespie supporters at a key time.
"That was God's way of helping him," said Robin Milewski, a York County Republican volunteer.
Gillespie keeps his distance from Trump in Virginia gov race
President Donald Trump has endorsed Republican Ed Gillespie in the Virginia gubernatorial race. But the candidate appears to go out of his way to avoid mentioning his most prominent supporter.
Trump's endorsement isn't mentioned anywhere on Gillespie's campaign website or his social media pages. Gillespie doesn't discuss Trump unless he's prompted to do so. He doesn't criticize the President, but he also doesn't make an effort to embrace him, either.
In fact, when Trump tweeted his support for Gillespie earlier this month, neither the candidate nor his campaign acknowledged the President's support until they were asked about it by reporters. Meanwhile, his opponent, Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, not only retweeted Trump's tweet, he used it as an opportunity to fundraise for his campaign. (Trump backed Gillespie on Twitter again late Saturday afternoon, after this story was first published, and the candidate's account retweeted him.)
A path to statewide victory for a Republican in Virginia, which hasn't happened since 2009, requires the GOP to run up numbers with its base and win over as many independent voters as possible. At a time when Trump's poll numbers are lagging, it's difficult to have it both ways -- few voters are ambivalent about the President, and as a result, it's tough to embrace him fully or reject him outright.
Gillespie is hoping it can be done.
The stakes are high, too: the Virginia gubernatorial race is the first statewide competitive contest since Trump was elected. The outcome could influence both Republican and Democratic candidates in the 2018 midterm elections across the country, setting the stage for the remainder of Trump's first term in the White House.
Northam, meanwhile, has taken a much different tack with his support from high-profile Democrats. Former President Barack Obama will appear with him at a rally on Thursday and Northam will campaign with former Vice President Joe Biden as well. Northam has been highly critical of Trump and his administration, at one point calling the President a "narcissistic maniac."
It's perhaps not surprising that Gillespie is taking a cautious approach when it comes to the commander in chief. Virginia was one of the few swing states that Trump lost in 2016, but the race was close and he still enjoys healthy support among Republicans there. Gillespie's problem is that moderate Republicans and independent voters, both of which are growing in Virginia, appear to be increasingly wary of Trump.
Gillespie's recipe is to embrace Trump's policies without embracing the man. He checks all the traditional Republican boxes on social issues and fiscal policy and he is emphasizing key tenets of the Trump campaign, including a heavy focus on immigration. He's currently running a hard-hitting ad tying illegal immigration to the rise of the MS-13 gang in Virginia, a position that led Trump to tweet his support.
But despite their similar stances, Gillespie still refuses to connect himself to Trump. When asked by Virginia's WVEC-TV if he is happy with Trump's endorsement, Gillespie replied, "I wasn't surprised he endorsed me." He also refuses to say if Trump will appear alongside him in the closing days of the campaign. Vice President Mike Pence campaigned for Gillespie Saturday night, but at this point, a visit by the President himself has not been ruled in or out.
"We don't discuss campaign strategy with the media," Gillespie spokesman David Abrams said. Similarly, the White House declined to comment.
While the campaign and the White House remain coy, talk show host John Fredericks, who chaired Trump's campaign in Virginia and hosts a popular syndicated radio show, claimed the two sides are preparing for a last-minute rally. But neither the campaign or the White House were willing to back up his claim.
Trump also might be reluctant to expend political capital if Gillespie -- who was trailing Northam, 53% to 40%, in a Washington Post-Schar School poll released earlier this month -- isn't assured of victory. Sources have told CNN the President was furious after establishment-backed Alabama Sen. Luther Strange lost a primary race last month despite his endorsement. As a GOP adviser to the White House put it, "Losing is bad for (Trump's) brand."
Gillespie, however, isn't the only one trying to strike a careful balance with Trump. Despite weeks of heavy criticism against the administration, Northam, too, has been forced to adjust his approach in a bid to woo independents.
"If Donald Trump wants to help Virginia," Northam said in an ad released earlier this month, "I'll work with him."
Controversies harm Northam's effort to turn out minority voters in Virginia governor's race
Democrats' biggest worry in the Virginia governor's race has long been that minority voters wouldn't turn out in full force to support Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam.
Now, a series of stumbles in the race's final week have threatened his campaign -- potentially hurting Northam with some of those minority voters and energizing President Donald Trump's supporters who had been lukewarm about Republican candidate Ed Gillespie.
Northam has spent the closing days of the race attempting to energize minority voters, particularly black voters in Richmond and eastern Virginia. He campaigned Wednesday night with two of the most prominent black Democrats, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, the Democratic National Committee deputy chair.
"This country is looking for hope," Booker said in Arlington. "This whole country right now is waiting to see what is going to happen in Virginia on Tuesday."
Late last month, former President Barack Obama held an event in Richmond warning Democrats against complacency in non-presidential elections.
Meanwhile, outside groups have focused on minority turnout. BlackPAC is spending $1.1 million on field organizing, mail, digital and radio advertisements. Justin Fairfax, the 38-year-old Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, will canvass with the group Sunday in Hampton Roads.
NextGen America, the group funded by billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, has worked with CASA in Action, America's Voice and the Center for Community Change Action on a field program targeting Latino and immigrant voters.
Those involved in the efforts said Virginia will provide key lessons for Democrats about how to mobilize minority voters in the 2018 midterm elections, when the Democratic electorate has typically dropped off from presidential elections more than the GOP electorate.
"I can't tell you how many times we were knocking on a door two weeks ago or three weeks ago, and voters didn't even know the ads were out there -- didn't even know that there was a Virginia election. There has to be early investment in Latino and immigrant voters, because the ways that they find information is different than the typical voter," said Grecia Lima, the deputy national political director at the Center for Community Change Action.
But two issues have dogged Northam in the closing days of the race as Gillespie's campaign works to cast him as offensive to white Trump voters.
First was a minute-long Latino Victory Fund ad, backed by only $30,000 in television spending. It featured four minority children being chased through their neighborhoods by a white man driving a pick-up truck with a Confederate flag and a Gillespie bumper sticker.
The ad gave Gillespie's camp an opening to accuse Democrats of painting all conservatives as racist. His campaign said online fundraising had skyrocketed in the wake of news reports about the ad, and has made a point of highlighting it as an example of what it sees as Northam's disdain for Trump supporters in the race's closing days.
In an interview with The Daily Caller, Gillespie said his family was bothered by the ad.
"They are infuriated," he said. "And they're disgusted. And I understand that. I think it's always harder on the family than on the candidate himself or herself, but it's not pleasant, and it's the kind of thing that makes good people not want to run for public office."
Then, on Wednesday night, Northam was pressed by reporters on sanctuary cities, where local law enforcement officials don't help enforce federal immigration laws.
Virginia has no such cities. And when the state legislature sought to ban them, Northam, in his role as president of the state senate, cast a tie-breaking vote to defeat the bill.
That vote led Gillespie to air ads for six weeks accusing Northam of opening the door for MS-13 gangs to rampage through Virginia's cities, featuring the words "Kill, Rape, Control."
On Wednesday, Northam told reporters that he opposes sanctuary cities -- and would actually support the bill that his vote killed were Virginia to ever actually have one.
New poll: Democrat with a 17-point lead in Virginia governor race
A poll of the race for governor of Virginia published Monday shows that Democratic Lt. Governor Ralph Northam has opened up a 17-point lead with likely voters over Republican Ed Gillespie, a former adviser to President George W. Bush.
The poll conducted by Quinnipiac University comes a little more than a week before voters go to the polls, showing Northam leading Gillespie, 53% to 36%. Libertarian Cliff Hyra garnered 3% support.
Virginia’s race has been an often ugly slugfest that political observers say has been more racially charged than past contests in recent memory. Outside groups on both sides have spent millions to influence the outcome and called on high-profile surrogates, including former President Barack Obama and Vice President Mike Pence.
Gillespie has kept Trump at a distance but tried to excite the president’s supporters with sharp-elbowed ads on immigration and Confederate statues. The former Republican National Committee and Washington lobbyist has been criticized by Democrats and some conservatives as running a race-baiting campaign.
Northam, an Army veteran and pediatric neurologist, has lumped Gillespie in with the white supremacists who rallied in Charlottesville this summer in support of Confederate monuments.
On the issues, the opponents have key differences on taxes, guns, abortion and other issues. Gillespie supports a cut in the state’s income tax rate, less gun control and more restrictions on abortions. Northam said he wants a tax overhaul that targets low-income Virginians, supports greater gun restrictions and abortion rights.
Virginia residents explain their votes
Thousands of Virginia voters have already cast their ballots for governor, driven by a wide range of issues.
At Jahnke Road Baptist Church in suburban Richmond, 39-year-old Angelica Bega said Tuesday morning she wasn’t sure whom she would vote for until she was handed a ballot, but she ultimately voted for Democrat Ralph Northam.
As an “issues-driven voter,” she says she said it was “very frustrating” to see so many attack ads. She said Republican Ed Gillespie’s attempt to make immigration such a big part of the campaign frustrated her and was a factor in her decision to vote for his opponent.
Emogene and Jimmy Babb, both 74, voted straight Republican at a rural polling station in Windsor, Virginia.
They said there wasn’t any one particular issue that drove them to the polls. But they said they shared Gillespie’s positions on gun rights and not removing Confederate statues.
“We don’t need a governor who is going to take our guns away,” Jimmy Babb said.
Turnout up in Virginia’s closely watched race
Early voter numbers are up in Virginia’s closely watched race for governor while polling places around the state are reporting a steady turnout.
Department of Elections Commissioner Edgardo Cortes says Virginia had a “substantially higher” number of early voters in this year’s closely watched race for governor than in recent past gubernatorial contests.
The 180,000 absentee ballots returned as of Sunday were 60,000 more than all absentee votes cast in the 2013 gubernatorial election.
Generally speaking, Democrats tend to do better in Virginia with a greater turnout.
Fairfax County, a large, reliably Democratic county in Northern Virginia, reported that voter turnout as of 2 p.m. was 30.6 percent.
Spotlight is on governor’s races in Virginia, New Jersey
Virginia and New Jersey are set to pick new governors Tuesday.
In New Jersey, Democrat Phil Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive and Obama administration ambassador to Germany, holds a double-digit lead in most polls over Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno. The Garden State is reliably Democratic, but has twice elected Republican Gov. Chris Christie.
The race in swing state Virginia is much closer, with most polls showing a tight contest between Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and Republican Ed Gillespie. It was the only Southern state Trump lost last year.
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