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Virginia Candidates Try To Navigate Trump Influence In Off-Year Election

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Republican President Donald Trump is not on the ballot this year. But candidates are feeling the need to respond to his controversial presidency.

Candidates up and down the ballot have all kinds of ways of talking about Donald Trump. Perhaps the most shocking was from Democrat Ralph Northam, the candidate for governor. Over the summer, he said this in a television advertisement: “I’m listening carefully to Donald Trump, and I think he’s narcissistic maniac.”

That was how Northam talked about Trump during a hotly contested primary campaign against challenger Tom Perriello. Coming from Northam, who is a pediatric neurologist, it had the ring of a medical diagnosis, at least for Democrats. During a debate with Republican candidate for governor Ed Gillespie, though, the Republican tried to transform the diagnosis into a liability.  "You know, what are you going to do as our governor? Call the White House and say please put me through to the narcissistic maniac, we’ve got to get 

Credit (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via AP, Pool)
Gubernatorial candidates Republican Ed Gillespie, left, and Democrat Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam debate in McLean, Va., Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017.

more of our ships and submarines built here in Virginia," Gillespie said. "I will work on behalf of the people of Virginia to make sure that we are creating jobs, raising take-home pay and helping people lift themselves out of poverty.”

Northam responded “well thank you, Ed. I would just say if the shoe fits wear it. And I would encourage everybody to look up the diagnostic criteria for narcissism and they’ll see that it does come quite close to an active diagnosis.”

That’s a diagnosis that may have changed over the last few months, though. Quentin Kidd at Christopher Newport University says Democrats were planning on a strategy of opposing Donald Trump. “That understanding has evolved on the part of Democratic candidates and party officials over the last several months, and I think that reflects Northam’s views on Trump.”

Northam is now talking about working with Trump if Trump is willing to work with Virginia. Meanwhile, the President issued an unexpected endorsement of Gillespie, who is unwilling to answer questions about whether or not he’s asking Trump to campaign with him in Virginia. Kidd says that raises new questions about how much influence Trump will have in November.

“Can Donald Trump stay away from Virginia and leave it alone if one of his greatest nemeses, Barack Obama, is actively campaigning for Ralph Northam," Kidd wondered. "I don’t think Donald Trump can leave that alone.”

That doesn’t just include the top of the ticket. Take the election to fill the seat vacated by Republican Delegate Dave Albo of Fairfax County. The Republican in that race is Lolita Mancheno-Smoak. She says Trump is a positive disruptor. “Sometimes in order to generate change, in order to get new energy to actually feel passionate about a new beginning, you need positive disruption. And I see Trump as a positive disruptor."

The Democrat in that race, Kathy Tran, disagrees with that assessment. “Like Trump, Lolita would defund Planned Parenthood. That’s definitely not a positive disruption. And Trumpcare, in its most extreme form would take away health care from 800,000 Virginians, again not a positive disruption.”

So what kind of influence will Trump have on election day? Stephen Farnsworth at the University of Mary Washington says Trump will be a net negative for Republicans. “You’re looking at a President who is pretty unpopular in most of Virginia but particularly so in the Washington suburbs, where a lot of government workers and a lot of people connected to the government really don’t like some of the tumult that is the hallmark of the Trump presidency so far.”

Ultimately, Farnsworth says, the real problem for Republicans is that Trump is sucking all the oxygen from the campaign trail. “When you think about the race for governor four years ago, when Ken Cuccinelli and Terry McAuliffe squared off, we had a lot of media attention. These candidates were very visible, very vigorous campaigns. And that’s a complete 180 from what’s going on this election cycle.”

Ultimately the decision will be in voters’ hands. If Democrats win the statewide races and pick up a few House seats that will be perceived as a defeat for Trump. If Republicans win, that will be perceived as a win for Trump, which may reshuffle the deck for 2018 and beyond.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.