When Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) challenges Republican Attorney General Mark Herring to a debate this week, a race that was billed as a cakewalk two months ago for Northam looks quite different as progressives gird for what could be a serious blowout in November.
Northam’s woes, like those of most Democrats now facing opposition, is coming courtesy of President Donald Trump. The freshman governor became a symbol of liberals’ frustration after he initially defended his doctor years-old racist picture on his Facebook page, while stressing that he never saw it. His lead over Herring – and one of the most conservative incumbents in the country – in the governor’s race has shrunk to six points in the most recent poll.
A hung Senate will also call into question which lawmakers Democrats would rely on in case they need to override a potential Trump veto — and in which states they would fear to take action.
When political analyst Larry Sabato said the Democrats should avoid Trump’s agenda, many Democrats agreed. But now it is Republicans under fire for their inability to curtail his erratic proposals, especially on immigration and health care.
“The threat posed by a president has always been the difference between easy victories in a gubernatorial election and an unexpectedly tough night,” said GOP consultant Tom Rath. “It has become more acute in an atmosphere where the President’s tone and messaging can have an impact on the public mood of a state.”
Northam, who would replace popular term-limited Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, is viewed favorably by 49% of likely voters in the latest Washington Post-Schar School poll, though that only four points higher than in October. Herring, meanwhile, is viewed favorably by 38% of likely voters.
If either were to win in November, the other would be thrown off the ballot because of term limits in 2022.
Hillary Clinton won Virginia’s 13 electoral votes in 2016, putting her beyond the margin of error for states to flip for the first time since the 1990s.
Many Virginia Democrats have tried to avoid Trump, and his polarizing message. U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, who trails Trump in a Washington Post-Schar School poll, recently told reporters “the election this year is about the economy, it’s about health care, it’s about standing up to [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell in Kentucky.”
Herring, a four-term state lawmaker, was a consistent Trump critic who attacked Trump in 2016 for praising a state trooper accused of sexually assaulting women. More recently, he’s spoken out against the Trump administration’s controversial policy allowing detained migrant children to be separated from their parents.
Republicans are looking to shake up this fall with a “Trump wave,” said Scott Stedman, a Republican strategist who was working for former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the first Democrat to be governor in 20 years. He said Northam’s slumping fortunes show that Republicans need to make inroads with conservative white voters after losing in Virginia to Democrats for eight consecutive elections.
Herring, meanwhile, has been spending the last week trying to take back the narrative.
“President Trump has no intention of standing by while these families are separated and these kids are left behind,” Herring said on a local news station this week. “I hope Virginians will join me in standing up to the Trump administration.”
If the October byelection is still in the balance in the middle of the month, Trump and his administration would jump in to make the race much tougher for Democrats, said a Republican official.
The president has been clear that he wants to tout the success of his tax cuts and support increased military spending. His Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has been in the state promoting a trade deal with neighboring states, and Trump discussed the North Korea situation while attending the Summit of the Americas in Lima, Peru.
“It’s like he’s really staking everything on the governor’s race,” the official said.
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