Virginia gubernatorial candidates Republican Ed Gillespie, left, and Democrat Ralph Northam joke at a debate on Sept. 19. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Virginia voters are getting their first taste of negative campaigning, with attack ads out from both major-party candidates. Does this mean the largely collegial race for governor is over, and the mud will start flying?

Perhaps. It all depends on whether the ads move the poll numbers. If there is a backlash to either Democratic nominee Ralph Northam’s “Enron Ed” ad, which lambastes Republican nominee Ed Gillespie for his former life as a lobbyist, or to Gillespie’s old-fashioned scare ad dinging Northam on sanctuary cities, look for the messaging to change.

If the data say the ads are working, look for a lot more mud to be splattered across your TV screen.

For political junkies who’ve observed this low-wattage campaign from its beginning, the attacks are a kind of tonic. At last, the candidates are dropping the nice-guy routine and going for each other’s jugulars.

It’s just like old times.

In the 2013 contest between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli, Virginia voters were deluged by negative ads from both camps.

McAuliffe, who went after Cuccinelli early and often, had several spots that hit the then-attorney general on such topics as birth control, climate change and the federal government shutdown.

But for all that effort, McAuliffe prevailed by only 2.5 percentage points.

Cuccinelli almost overcame all the ads with his late push against Obamacare, bolstered by the botched October rollout of the program.

We might see a kind of replay of the Obamacare fight in the next couple of weeks as Congress takes up its latest repeal effort, the Cassidy-Graham bill.

Democrats and their allies are on a “full war footing” aimed at stopping the bill or, if that’s not possible, making Republicans pay at the polls for backing it.

Traditionally, Republicans wilt in the face of attacks that paint them as either cruel toward the poor or uncaring to the defenseless. With Obamacare, Democrats have the poor (those on Medicaid) and the defenseless (children and those with preexisting conditions) on their side.

Republicans usually fight back with arguments rooted in dollars and appeals to freedom of choice. Both are good points to make, but they are also abstract and cold.

Cuccinelli had the advantage in 2013 of being from the outside party arguing against a bad law strong-armed into passage that stumbled out of the gate. He also had enough tea party energy and credibility to make his race close.

Gillespie has none of those things. Republicans control Congress, President Trump is deeply unpopular in Virginia, and the tea party has essentially dissolved. Plus, there are a lot of people who have health insurance now who didn’t when Obamacare was passed.

Gillespie, then, could find himself being the first Republican to face any sort of backlash. Not because of his ads. Not because of his many and varied policy proposals. But because he is a Republican. And Republicans, the talking points will say, want to throw kids like talk show host Jimmy Kimmel’s son into the street.

It’s all deeply cynical. It’s all highly emotional. But it’s also very powerful.

No wonder, then, that Gillespie is trying to switch the narrative to gangs, as well as attacking this newspaper. Even though Gillespie’s embrace of the fictitious sanctuary cities issue riles some of his fellow Republicans, it makes political sense to beat up on the liberal media while talking about public safety.

Those issues motivate the base – and Gillespie needs them to show up in big numbers on Election Day. Are they cynical ploys, too? Of course. But they can also work, if played correctly.

UPDATE: Regarding a column from last week about Virginia’s official response to the ongoing Equifax data breech fiasco, Attorney General Mark Herring’s office issued a press release on Sept. 15 in which the AG called on the credit giant to “stop pushing their own fee based [credit monitoring] services on data breach victims” and that said “Equifax should, at a minimum, be taking steps to reimburse consumers who incur fees to completely freeze their credit.”

At the federal level, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has introduced legislation that would “force Equifax and its competitors to provide free credit freezing and unfreezing.”