WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump’s political clout was tested on Tuesday in an election for governor in Virginia, where a fellow Republican who has embraced Trump’s combative campaign style faced off in a close contest with a Democratic front-runner.
The Virginia race – one of a series of U.S. state and local elections – could offer a preview of the battles in next year’s midterm congressional contests, which will determine which party controls the House of Representatives and the Senate.
In a sign of the stakes in Virginia’s election, Trump took a break from his lengthy Asia visit to send tweets supporting Republican Ed Gillespie, a former chairman of the national party, and bashing Democrat Ralph Northam, currently the Southern state’s lieutenant governor.
Trump has endorsed Gillespie, but has not stumped for him, while Vice President Mike Pence has joined the Washington lobbyist on the campaign trail. The Democrats have also brought out big names, with former President Barack Obama recently campaigning for Northam and the party’s 2016 presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, endorsing him via Twitter.
Gillespie kept his distance from the president but emulated Trump’s style, using hard-edged ads to hit Northam on many of the contentious issues – namely immigration, gang crime, guns and Confederate statues.
The most recent statewide opinion polls give Northam a slight edge over Gillespie, but the ads put the Democrat on the defensive and narrowed his lead in recent weeks.
Elsewhere, New Jersey voters were picking a new governor to succeed Republican Chris Christie. Several big cities were selecting mayors, and conservative Utah was holding a special election to replace Republican U.S. Representative Jason Chaffetz, who stepped down before his term ended.
Virginia polls were due to close at 7 p.m. EST (midnight GMT).
Northam and Gillespie were vying to replace popular Governor Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat who could not seek re-election under state law. McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chairman, staunchly supported Clinton last year and helped her win Virginia by 5 percentage points.
Democrats were worried about the risk of an upset win by Gillespie, which would mark the latest in a series of setbacks.
If Gillespie wins, Republicans might take cues from his emphasis on cultural issues in their campaigns for next year’s midterm elections, when all 435 seats in the House and 33 of the Senate’s 100 seats come up for election. Republicans now control both chambers.
Despite liberal fury at Trump that has stirred grassroots activism, Democrats have lost four congressional special elections this year.
Voters in Arlington County – a Democratic stronghold bordering Washington, D.C. – connected the election to national politics.
“Trump talks about draining the swamp, but Gillespie kind of is the swamp,” said Nick Peacemaker, who works in marketing and considered himself a Republican until Trump won the party’s presidential nomination.
Peacemaker said Gillespie seemed to shift closer to Trump’s policies after securing the Republican gubernatorial nomination.
Retired librarian Diane Morton voted for Northam, in part, because she is highly opposed to Trump.
“I am appalled by what is happening in our country right now,” she said after casting her ballot at a local elementary school.
Lee Hernandez, who works in finance, voted for Gillespie because he found the Republican’s economic message persuasive.
Hernandez said he found Northam’s campaign message “a really big turnoff” because of the emphasis on keeping Virginia in Democratic hands.
FEAR AND ADVERTISING
Looking back at the campaign, Democratic strategist Dane Strother said, “Gillespie’s ads played on every fear and dark impulse, and if we lose, we are going to see a lot more of that.”
Gillespie says his policies and plans to bolster Virginia’s economy helped narrow the polling gap.
But some voters said they came to support him after seeing an ad that an outside pro-Northam group aired – and then quickly took down – depicting a white man chasing down minority children in a pickup truck with a Confederate flag and a Gillespie sticker.
Describing the ad as racist, Pete Shinnamon, a retired manufacturer’s representative, said it bolstered his decision not to vote for Northam.
“That did me in,” he said after casting his ballot in Hanover County, a Republican stronghold. “We’ve really sunk to a low level.”
In the governor’s race in Democratic-leaning New Jersey, Democrat Phil Murphy, a former investment banker and ambassador to Germany, had a comfortable lead in polls over Republican Kim Guadagno, the state’s lieutenant governor, who was hampered by her association with the unpopular Christie.
In local races, Democratic Mayors Bill de Blasio in New York and Marty Walsh in Boston were expected to cruise to re-election, while voters were picking mayors in Detroit, Atlanta, Seattle and Charlotte, North Carolina.
In Utah, Republican John Curtis, a Trump supporter, was a heavy favorite to fill Chaffetz’s vacant seat.
Additional reporting by Ginger Gibson and Gary RobertsonWriting by John Whitesides and Lisa LambertEditing by Caren Bohan, Peter Cooney and Jonathan Oatis