One week from Election Day, Democrat Ralph Northam's lead has narrowed to five percentage points in the Virginia governor's race, with Republican Ed Gillespie closing a motivation gap and consolidating support among conservatives and supporters of President Trump, a new Washington Post-Schar School poll finds.
Northam, the state's lieutenant governor, leads among likely voters 49 percent to Gillespie's 44 percent, a margin that is not statistically significant. The Democrat was up by 13 points in a Post poll earlier this month. Libertarian Cliff Hyra is at 4 percent, enough to play spoiler if the race remains tight through Tuesday.
Democrats have at least a slight edge in two down-ballot contests, with incumbent Attorney General Mark Herring (D) holding a 49 percent to 43 percent lead against Republican challenger John Adams. In the lieutenant governor's race, Democrat Justin Fairfax has a narrow lead over Republican Jill Holtzman Vogel, 49 percent to 43 percent. Vogel would be the first woman to hold the seat, Fairfax the second African American.
The Trump administration's tumultuous first year has overshadowed the contest, and most of the likely voters say their opinion of the president is important to their decision for governor. Gillespie has faced criticism for sponsoring ads focused on Confederate monuments and the danger posed by the Latino MS-13 gang, themes that echo Trump's presidential campaign.
Darwin Byrd, who plans to vote for Northam, said he does not like the fact that Gillespie has made Confederate monuments a central issue.
"I've never seen that come up in any election I've ever voted in," said Byrd, 55, who is African American. "My parents may have, but I've never seen it in any campaign until this year, which is really unfortunate. It seems like we're drifting more toward the Old South."
Byrd, a Democrat who lives in the Tidewater region of the state, also recoiled at a Gillespie ad that blames Northam for violence connected to the MS-13 gang.
"I mean, really?" he said. "They're just feeding into a base of fear."
But there are only modest signs of backlash in the Post-Schar School of Policy and Government poll, which was conducted Oct. 26-29 among 1,238 Virginians, including 921 likely voters. It carries a four-point margin of sampling error.
Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman, Washington lobbyist and counselor to President George W. Bush, has consolidated support among the GOP base without repelling a significant share of independents and moderates. Voters split about evenly when asked whom they trust to handle illegal immigration, but Gillespie has an eight-percentage-point edge on trust to handle "crime and public safety."
Those numbers suggest that Gillespie, who has struggled at times with Virginia's purple-state politics in the Trump era, has successfully threaded the needle with his ads. Many of them suggest that the lieutenant governor, a pediatrician and Army doctor who treated soldiers in Operation Desert Storm, would empower illegal immigrants who commit violent crime. Another ad, tied to Northam's support for McAuliffe's efforts to restore voting rights to felons, suggests he is soft on pedophiles.
The ads have been highly controversial, with critics accusing Gillespie of stoking racist fears and abandoning his oft-stated goal of making the GOP more welcoming to minorities.
But they may be effective — appealing to "Build That Wall" Trump voters as well as suburbanites unnerved by brutal slayings attributed to the gang.
The MS-13 message has resonated for Paul King of Lynchburg, given the slaying of 17-year-old Raymond Wood in central Virginia in March. Police have charged three MS-13 gang members, all undocumented immigrants, with the crime.
"They killed a boy in Forest here," said King, 48, referring to an area in Bedford. "You cannot tell me these guys are here legally," he added.
He likes Gillespie's promise to ban the establishment of sanctuary cities, a term generally used to refer to localities that do not cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
In a sign that Democrats fear that Gillespie's message is breaking through, the Latino Victory Fund on Monday released a controversial ad of its own. It showed a white man in a truck, decorated with a Confederate flag and a Gillespie bumper sticker, chasing minority children. Gillespie campaign manager Chris Leavitt called it a "desperate smear campaign."
The Democratic-aligned advocacy group pulled the ad after Tuesday's deadly truck attack in New York.
A slight majority of voters — 51 percent — say Gillespie has run a mainly negative campaign, compared with 37 percent who say the same of Northam.
Meanwhile, Gillespie also has shored up support in the swing-voting Northern Virginia exurbs encompassing Loudoun County. Gillespie runs even with Northam at 44 percent after trailing by more than 20 percentage points a month ago. Likely voters are about evenly split between Northam and Gillespie when asked which man they trust to handle taxes — a notable parity given that Gillespie made tax cuts the basis for his campaign. Richmond and its surrounding area and eastern Virginia are also split evenly between the Democrat and the Republican, while voters in the Tidewater region that Northam calls home favor him by double digits. Northam leads Gillespie by a more than 2-to-1 margin in the vote-rich D.C. suburbs, while Gillespie holds a double-digit advantage in the southwest part of the state, 55 percent to 38 percent.
"We have a very competitive race, largely about mobilizing the base" for each candidate, said Mark Rozell, dean of George Mason University's Schar School. "If [Gillespie] can make the pitch as he has been to the Trump Republicans, while at the same time maintaining his credibility with establishment Republicans, that will be a real accomplishment."
As the nation's only competitive governor's race this year, Virginia's contest is a measure of whether swing-state Republicans can survive Trump's unpopularity. Gillespie has tried to walk a fine line with the president, keeping him at arm's length while also courting Trump voters with red-meat TV ads and campaign surrogates. Gillespie is outpacing Trump with his 44 percent support in the governor's race, six points higher than Trump's 38 percent job approval among likely voters.
Gillespie receives 95 percent support from Trump approvers, while Northam garners a significantly smaller 81 percent among those who disapprove of Trump's performance, a group that makes up 59 percent of likely voters.
Sara Ortiz, a 45-year-old Springfield resident, left her presidential ballot blank last year and has been distressed by what she sees as Trump's erratic behavior and his high-profile feuds with members of his own party. But her distaste for Trump has not rubbed off on Gillespie, whom she supports because he seems less likely to raise taxes and shares her socially conservative views.
"Gillespie has been in Virginia politics for a long time, and I haven't heard the same stories about his personal behavior or his decision-making that you hear about Trump," said Ortiz, a stay-at-home mother who has an MBA in international marketing.
But some swing voters say Trump has turned them off all Republicans, Gillespie included. Gale Robinson, 63, has always prided herself on voting for the person, not the party. She last backed a Republican for governor in 2009, when Robert F. McDonnell won.
But this year, she can't bring herself to support any Republican, because she sees them as enabling Trump. She considers the president a liar and manipulator and was especially aghast when he responded to the summer's deadly clashes between white nationalists and counterprotesters in Charlottesville by suggesting that there were "very fine people on both sides."
"This is the first year I can say in a very long time that, 'Okay, I don't even have to look at the news. I don't have to look at what's going on, because I'm voting straight Democrat,' " said the government employee in Richmond. "I'm really distrustful of the Republican Party because of the leader."
Gillespie has strengthened his advantage among two Republican base groups where his support lagged behind one month ago. Among self-identified conservatives, Gillespie's lead over Northam grew from 56 points to 69 points. Gillespie's lead among white voters without college degrees has increased from 25 points to 35 points, although he still has room to grow among a group that favored Trump by 47 points in the state in the 2016 election.
Gillespie's supporters have also caught up to Northam's in motivation to vote and in attention to the race. Among registered voters, an identical 71 percent of both Northam and Gillespie supporters say they are certain to vote or have already done so, a shift from four weeks ago, when Northam backers had a nearly 10-point edge on this measure. The Democrat's supporters are more engaged on one measure in the poll, with 62 percent saying it is "extremely important" to vote in this year's election, compared with 53 percent of Gillespie supporters.
Trump has become another motivating factor for voters, with 57 percent of likely voters who approve or disapprove of him saying their view is "very" or "fairly" important in deciding their vote for governor. Fully two-thirds of Northam's backers, but less than half of Gillespie's, say Trump factors into their choice.
"I can't stand him," Marsha Moore, 63, said of the president. "I would rather see a Democrat in the governor's mansion over someone who is just going to sidle up to him. That's what Gillespie would do."
A lifelong resident of the Shenandoah Valley, Moore argued that Gillespie lost credibility when the New Jersey native began playing up his support for preserving Confederate monuments. Both candidates say localities should decide their fate, but Gillespie prefers that they remain in place while Northam would like them moved to museums.
Joshua Needham, 21, was excited last year to vote for Trump and remains firmly in the president's camp, saying that "Trump's doing really good things to drain the swamp right now."
But Gillespie leaves Needham cold. The Woodbridge resident, who studies business management online through Columbia Southern University, plans to sit out this election. "I don't think that his ideology is aligned correctly with Trump's," Needham said. "So I'm definitely not too interested in him."
Northam maintains several key advantages in the race. He holds double-digit leads over Gillespie on trust to handle race relations and health care, the latter of which voters rated among the two most important issues in their choice for governor earlier this month.
Dartania Emery, 30, believes Northam's experience as a physician would lead him to support policies benefiting people like her, who have disabilities.
Emery, who has cerebral palsy and a neurological disorder known as hydrocephalus, worries that Trump will cut Medicaid and Medicare. "I really hope he [Northam] blocks them from cutting both programs," said Emery, who lives in the Tidewater region.
Northam benefits from a 52 percent to 41 percent advantage among women, a group that has consistently made up a majority of state voters in recent elections, as well as 89 percent support among African Americans and 73 percent among all nonwhite voters.
Emily Guskin, Fenit Nirappil and Antonio Olivo contributed to this report.