In a Jan. 30 column, I wrote that “all of the [Virginia gubernatorial] candidates, in both parties, are now on notice: At any moment, the president may say or do something that demands an instant reaction.”
The Trump White House was not two weeks old, but it had already stirred controversy with its proposed travel ban. More – much more — was guaranteed to come.
And it has done so with a vengeance in the past couple of days.
Through all of this, Virginia Republican gubernatorial front-runner Ed Gillespie has largely managed to sidestep President Trump’s carnival of horrors and increasingly turn his focus to the general election.
In response to the Democratic debate Tuesday night, Gillespie issued a press release in which he criticized both Democratic candidates — Virginia Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam and former congressman Tom Perriello — for being “more interested in playing politics” and promised that he would “continue to focus” on the state’s economy, job creation and tax relief.
All of which is exactly what we should expect from a candidate with a comfortable lead in the pre-primary polls.
But Gillespie may not be able to dodge the Trump issue any longer.
It’s not just the twin charges that Trump may have leaked sensitive intelligence information to the Russian ambassador. Nor is it the possibility Trump may have tested the boundaries of obstruction of justice.
Gillespie isn’t responsible for Trump’s increasingly erratic and potentially destructive behavior.
But, as a candidate for Virginia governor, and particularly one who has been a presidential counselor, questions about Trump will follow Gillespie on the campaign trail.
Let’s give Gillespie the benefit of the doubt on the two most recent Trump eruptions. There are still a vast number of unknowns in those stories, and it is impossible to say where they will lead.
But there is one question I’ll hold Gillespie to, because, unlike national security or White House personnel matters, this one affects Virginia directly: What would he do if the government shuts down in September?
Recall that earlier this month, the president said, “Our country needs a good ‘shutdown’ in September to fix mess!”
Perhaps he was just being provocative. But, as we all know, when the federal government closes its doors, even for a few days, it has an outsize effect on Virginia.
A 2014 JLARC report said federal spending accounts for 20 percent of the state’s economy, and it ranked behind only Maryland in the percentage of workers who are federal employees.
A shutdown in October 2013 played a supporting role in the dynamics of the 2013 gubernatorial race between Republican Ken Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe.
The narrative of that shutdown pinned the blame on Republicans, led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who wanted to defund Obamacare.
Cruz was a friend and political supporter of Cuccinelli, who trailed McAuliffe in the polls but was slowly closing the gap.
While exit polling said the shutdown was a wash with voters, slightly more blamed congressional Republicans than those who blamed then-President Barack Obama.
But in a tight race, every data point, skirmish and government shutdown becomes significant when the votes are counted.
That counts double when the Republican in the White House is on record saying a shutdown would be “good.”
I asked the Gillespie campaign how it might respond if the federal government grinds to a halt in September.
Campaign spokesman David Abrams told me that while Gillespie is focused on his economic message, the candidate “also believes that the most basic function of any government, at any level, is to operate efficiently and effectively and serve its citizens well.”
Abrams said Gillespie is “confident that leaders in Congress and the administration will work together to keep government running this fall.”
The response isn’t much different from one Gillespie gave in this 2013 interview about that government shutdown. He discussed the need to “find some common ground” and said he hoped the feuding sides would embrace “some thoughtful approaches to getting control of spending.”
It’s not a bad pitch.
But it may need one more ingredient to make it fit 2017’s political reality: a firm, and unambiguous split from Trump.
Gillespie, the loyal Republican, may balk at such a move. But given the growing record of Trump blunders, and one that’s been telegraphed for September, Gillespie won’t have any choice.