WASHINGTON: A handful of US states held elections on Tuesday (Nov 7) one year after Donald Trump's shock presidential victory, and nowhere is the political spotlight hotter than in Virginia, where Democrats hope their anti-Trump firewall holds.
Virginians cast ballots in a marquee race for governor that has national ramifications, as a test for the Republican Party and a divisive, unpopular president.
A win in this southern battleground by Democratic Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam would signal voter rejection of Trump's policies and his scorched-earth 2016 campaign, whose polarising tactics have darkened his presidency.
It would also energise the Democratic Party - currently plagued by infighting - ahead of the 2018 mid-term elections, and show Republicans that coddling the controversial Trump comes at a price.
Virginia voted twice for former president Barack Obama, and Democrat Hillary Clinton carried the state in last year's White House race.
But with polls showing Northam narrowly ahead, Virginia's race could go either way.
Clinton hoped Democratic voters were leaving nothing to chance. "Consider this my personal ask/nudge/plea for you to go to the polls and VOTE," she tweeted on Tuesday.
Live in VA, NJ, WA, NY or anywhere with an election today? Consider this my personal ask/nudge/plea for you to go to the polls and VOTE.— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) November 7, 2017
With all eyes on Virginia, an upset victory for Republican challenger Ed Gillespie would likely validate Trump's aggressive style, and form a blueprint for how mainstream Republicans can embrace Trump issues without necessarily embracing the controversial man himself.
Gillespie pledged to be "a governor for all Virginians" at his final campaign stop on Monday, where about 100 people crammed into a Republican Party office basement in Fairfax.
He has accused Northam, 58, of failing to curb gang violence, making it easier for sex offenders to purchase guns, and seeking to tear down statues honouring Civil War pro-slavery Confederate secessionists.
Trump took time out from his Asia trip on Tuesday to tweet his support for Gillespie, highlighting the hot-button social issues that he hopes will bring his base out to the polls.
"Ralph Northam will allow crime to be rampant in Virginia. He's weak on crime, weak on our GREAT VETS, Anti-Second Amendment ... and has been horrible on Virginia economy," Trump posted.
Ralph Northam will allow crime to be rampant in Virginia. He’s weak on crime, weak on our GREAT VETS, Anti-Second Amendment....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 7, 2017
FOLLOWING TRUMP'S PLAYBOOK
Trump has not campaigned with Gillespie, but the candidate's many ads, which have fueled debate on race, guns, illegal immigration and the fate of Confederate statues, signal clear alignment with the president.
Gillespie followed the Trump playbook, shifting to the right and dramatically escalating the mudslinging, said Corey Stewart, a conservative Trump acolyte who narrowly lost to Gillespie in the Republican primary.
"If Gillespie wins it shows that the Trump message works," Stewart, who chairs the Prince William County board of supervisors, told AFP in a telephone interview.
"He's embraced the issues of defending historical monuments, cracking down on illegal immigration, and gangs."
Gillespie, a former Republican Party chief, exudes establishment politics. But the 56-year-old is looking to harness Trump's populist nationalism in a place where an increasingly diverse electorate is making it tougher for Republicans to win.
At a voting station in Alexandria, in the Democratic stronghold of northern Virginia, Gillespie acknowledged he does "appreciate (Trump's) support very much."
What happens in Virginia's political petri dish could impact Republican strategies nationwide come 2020, the next presidential campaign.
If Trump does not prove a drag on Virginia voters, it would demonstrate his power to draw Americans to polls despite poor approval numbers.
Northern Virginia, which borders Washington, hosts a thriving economy with thousands of federal employees and a robust technology sector.
Aside from the capital Richmond and eastern counties, the rest of the state is largely conservative.
Trump's base consists of white voters without college degrees, but Virginia is well-educated.
Gillespie first must overcome the likes of 81-year-old Barton, a retired psychiatrist who did not give his last name, and told AFP he would vote against Trump "any chance I have." "He gives me nightmares," Barton added.
Several cities including New York and Charlotte are electing mayors, while a handful of states are holding elections for local lawmakers on Tuesday.
New Jersey is also choosing a governor. Democrats there are likely to take back the governor's mansion, as Republican Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno's campaign is undoubtedly dragged down by her association with deeply unpopular Governor Chris Christie.