As Trump looms over the race, Virginia tests whether an establishment Republican can succeed

A decade before Donald Trump upended national politics, Ed Gillespie was among the establishment Republicans counseling his party’s candidates to tread gently on the issue of immigration or risk ruination by alienating Latinos.

Now he is Virginia’s Republican nominee for governor, sounding remarkably like Trump as he speaks from a hay bale-laden stage at the Washington County fairgrounds in southwest Virginia. The president won 75% of the vote in this part of the state, and Gillespie is trying to prove that an establishment Republican still can succeed under the shadow of Trump.

“Do we need to have sanctuary cities here in Virginia?” Gillespie asked the crowd, raising an issue he has highlighted in ads that feature heavily tattooed Latinos and threats of menacing gangs.

“No, we don’t!” the crowd shouted back, and he added firmly: “No, we don’t.”

The ads are not subtle. “MS-13’s motto is Kill. Rape. Control,” blares one. “Ralph Northam’s policy? Northam cast the deciding vote in favor of sanctuary cities that let illegal immigrants who commit crimes back on the street, increasing the threat of MS-13.”

Northam, the state’s lieutenant governor and the Democratic candidate, did vote against a ban on sanctuary cities in a procedural move engineered by his Republican opponents. But Virginia does not have any sanctuary cities, and those that exist elsewhere do not allow immigrants arrested for major crimes back on the street.

Gillespie portrayed a very different image a day later at a high school in Nokesville, an exurb in Northern Virginia, the region whose booming growth has propelled the state to a persistent blue tint in recent elections. He cited his father’s journey from Ireland as an 8-year-old as he defended young immigrants brought here by their parents and protected until recently by a program Trump has rescinded.

While his father immigrated legally, Gillespie said, young immigrants brought here without proper papers should not be punished.

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“They did not make that decision” to cross the border, he told about 1,500 members of an interfaith group at a joint appearance with Northam. “They should not be deported.”

Both parties’ candidates have balancing acts to pursue in advance of the election here, now just over two weeks away. Both acts involve Trump.

Northam must find a way to keep turnout high among minorities and liberals, riled up by the president, without turning off more moderate voters. Gillespie’s problem, one that many Republicans will face in the year ahead, is to reinvent himself as a candidate for the Trump era.

Gillespie’s sanctuary city ads are part of a strategy meant to prove that winning is still possible for candidate who by most definitions should be out of favor among his party’s most avid activists. His gamble is that he can adopt just enough of Trump’s message to satisfy the president’s GOP supporters while creating enough distance to placate everyone else.

The strain sometimes shows: Speakers at the Washington County event emphasized their grievances against former President Obama rather than delving deeply into Gillespie’s background. That is because Gillespie is precisely what Trump ran against — a legendary Washington lobbyist, a former counselor to President George W. Bush and chairman of the Republican National Committee, a lifelong representative of a party establishment that Trump has done his best to demolish.

Trump may be generally unpopular in Virginia, but he still looms large, as he does everywhere else, whether the candidates like it or not.

“I feel like it’s a referendum on President Trump,” said Cornell Williams, a 37-year-old high school administrator who lives in Prince William County, a key decider in Virginia elections. He described Trump’s presidency as an exhausting “circus sideshow.”

“The presidential election took so much energy,” he said. “A lot of people are dealing with the aftermath.”

For Republican candidates in contested states like Virginia, the fact that everything revolves around Trump raises two vexingly opposite scenarios: Every day brings the potential for a Trump tempest that could alter the election by riling Democrats — or by energizing Republicans.

So far, Gillespie has publicly ignored Trump even as he’s borrowed many of the president’s favorite themes — or, as Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe put it at a Northam rally in Richmond on Thursday, he has treated “the president of his party like a communicable disease.” Trump endorsed him via a pair of tweets, an alliance Gillespie seldom talks about, although he welcomed Vice President Mike Pence to Washington County.

On the other side, Northam’s lead feels less comfortable than Democrats might have hoped.

Most often, Virginia elects governors of the party that lost the presidential contest the year before. No Republican has won a top-of-the-ticket statewide race since 2009. (Virginia elects its governor every four years, for a single term.) The last three presidential elections have gone to Democrats, with Hillary Clinton winning by more than five points.

But to nervous Democrats, a more important factor is the huge drop-off in turnout between presidential contests and state races. According to the Virginia Department of Elections, 72% of registered voters cast ballots in 2016. In the last governor’s race, in 2013, only 43% voted. The smaller electorate is generally older and more conservative, like one that helped Gillespie nearly knock off Democratic Sen. Mark Warner in 2014.

The need by Democrats to pull in younger and more diverse voters — particularly African Americans — brought Obama to the Richmond rally.

“Elections matter. Voting matters,” he told the rapturous crowd. “You can’t take anything for granted. You can’t sit this one out.”

Earlier in the campaign, as he worked to dispatch a challenger in the Democratic primary, Northam, a pediatric neurologist and Army veteran, harshly condemned Trump, calling him a “narcissistic maniac.” He has now turned to a more congenial argument.

“If Donald Trump is helping Virginia, I’ll work with him,” he says in an ad cycling endlessly on the state’s airwaves. “But Donald Trump has proposed cutting Virginia school funding, rolling back our clean air and water protections and taking away healthcare from thousands of Virginians. I’ve stood up to Donald Trump on all of it. Ed Gillespie refuses to stand up to him at all.”

Northam also has used a familiar set of social issues to assail Gillespie. One ad aimed at female voters features audio of Gillespie declaring, “I would like to see abortion be banned.” (Aides said Gillespie continues to support exceptions for rape, incest or threat to the life of the mother.) Since the Las Vegas shooting, Northam also has called for restrictions on assault weapons — a position not shared by Gillespie.

The gun issue demonstrates how difficult it can be to merge two distinct voter blocs. In the suburbs of northern Virginia, gun control is popular. In Trump strongholds, gun rights are inviolate.

“Preserve our history, protect the 2nd Amendment, preserve our values,” paramedic James Bardinelli of Bristol, Va., said when asked what he saw in Gillespie. Bardinelli was helping a friend sell merchandise at the Washington County event; the bestselling item was a navy sweatshirt promoting a 2020 ticket: “Trump NRA.”

For both sides, the stakes are high, said Stephen Farnsworth, a presidential scholar at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va.

“The Trump people are going to want to show that Trump is an asset to the Republican party,” he said. “And the Democrats would like to show that he is not.”

cathleen.decker@latimes.com

Twitter: @cathleendecker

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