-- President Donald Trump inserted himself into the Virginia governor’s race, tweeting support for the Republican candidate and an attack on the Democratic contender whom the president accused of “fighting for the violent MS-13 gangs & sanctuary cities.”
The president's tweet Thursday night was his first public comment about the Virginia governor's contest between Republican Ed Gillespie and Democrat Ralph Northam, which will be held Nov. 7.
Gillespie, a longtime lobbyist and former George W. Bush adviser, in a call with reporters today seemed to somewhat downplay the president's endorsement and said he hadn't been aware the president was going to tweet about the race.
"I guess I'm a little surprised that it's news that the Republican president is in support of the Republican nominee for governor,” Gillespie added.
It's unclear to some political observers whether Trump's endorsement will ultimately help or hurt Gillespie.
Virginia was the only southern state that went for Hillary Clinton over Trump in the 2016 presidential election. And, the president’s approval rating in Virginia is now at just 39 percent, according to two recent polls in the state by Quinnipiac and the Washington Post/Schar School.
Gillespie has seemed to be cautious during the campaign about his support for Trump.
Still, the Republican has recently focused on themes that echo the president, such as illegal immigration.
Gillespie released new ads that flash the words “Kill, Rape, Control” across the screen as a hooded figure holding a baseball bat stands menacingly in an empty room with the narrator warning about the threat of MS-13 criminal gang to Virginia.
Another ad that was released today says Confederate monuments in Virginia should stay up. “I want to keep our statues up. Our history is our history, and we need to teach it, not erase it,” Gillespie says in the ad.
National Democrats meanwhile pounced on news of Trump’s tweet as an opportunity to tie Gillespie to the president.
“Ed Gillespie’s desperate, negative campaign has adopted the Donald Trump playbook. So, it’s no wonder that Donald Trump endorsed Ed Gillespie’s divisive campaign tonight,” Jared Leopold, communications director for the Democratic Governors Association said in a statement. “Now that Gillespie has Trump’s official endorsement, we look forward to seeing them proudly campaign together this month.”
The Democratic candidate, Northam, a former Army doctor who is currently the state's lieutenant governor, early in the campaign called Trump a “narcissistic maniac.” But in a recent ad he seemed to take a somewhat more conciliatory approach, saying he’d “work with” Trump if the president is “helping Virginia.”
Virginia has elected only one Republican governor since 1997 and has gone blue in every presidential election since 2008. Most polls conducted this fall have shown Northam with a small lead of between 4 and 6 points.
Not surprisingly, then, Gillespie does not seem to want to alienate the state's more moderate voters in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.
Only 20 percent of the Republican's TV ads mentioning MS-13 or illegal immigration aired in the Washington, D.C., metro area. In contrast, more than half of his ads that aired in more rural areas of the state like Roanoke and Charlottesville focused on illegal immigration and MS-13, according to data from the Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG),