RICHMOND — Two little words are on Ed Gillespie’s lips of late: “President Trump.”
Since launching his bid for Virginia governor, the establishment Republican had treated the man in the White House like a Voldemortian unmentionable.
That was widely considered a smart strategy in a swing state that went for Hillary Clinton in November and where the president’s approval rating sat at 36 percent in a Washington Post-Schar School poll in May.
Then Gillespie nearly lost the June 13 GOP primary to a Trump-style populist, Corey Stewart. And ever since, senior Republicans have been pushing him to embrace the president and hire some of Trump’s strategists to shore up the Republican base ahead of November’s election. Some aired their concerns in a Washington Post article last week.
As of this week, Gillespie and campaign surrogates began conspicuously dropping Trump’s name.
“Having a governor who can work with a Republican House, a Republican Senate, President Trump, Vice President Pence, the Trump administration — I think is an asset for us in Virginia,” Gillespie told reporters Monday.
This week, his campaign sought to reframe his November contest with Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who called Trump “narcissistic maniac” in one widely seen television ad, as a battle between a Trump loyalist and an obstructionist foe.
“Virginia needs a governor who is eager to work with President Trump, not be at odds with him,” said a statement the Gillespie campaign issued from two Republican state senators.
And on the John Fredericks radio program Thursday, Gillespie said: “I want to lead Virginia. Ralph Northam wants to lead the resistance. . . . I seek to serve my fellow Virginians, and I will work with the administration — you’re darn right I will.”
Fredericks, who helped lead Trump’s Virginia campaign, cheered the pro-Trump rhetoric as “a significant shift,” although he remained disappointed that the campaign has not acted on his advice to hire Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s bombastic early campaign manager, or other Trump campaign veterans.
“The political reality is such that you can’t thread the needle and you can’t run away from your party’s standard-bearer,” Fredericks said hours after his interview with Gillespie.
“It’s essential that he not only embrace those policies of the president that he agrees with, but do so in a way that motivates the Trump voter base to come out for him in November. . . . I think Ed realized on June 13 that he didn’t connect with Trump voters and he didn’t inspire them.”
Gillespie’s campaign declined to directly respond to a request for comment, but it issued a statement dismissing that any perceived strategy shift was an invention of “political punditry.”
“Ed is running a positive campaign of policy ideas to get Virginia growing again after the stagnation of the McAuliffe-Northam administration,” Gillespie spokesman David Abrams said, referring to outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D). “Out-of-state liberal media outlets like The Washington Post are free to engage in all the political punditry you want.”
Democrats, who had sought to tie Gillespie to Trump all along, celebrated the shift.
The state party launched a “Trump Gillespie 2017 Tour” — complete with campaign-style signs — to “highlight Ed Gillespie’s enthusiastic support for Donald Trump’s most extreme policies and the threat the Trump-Gillespie agenda poses to Virginia’s economy, health care and working families.”
The two-day tour included appearances by Northam supporters at stops in Richmond, Norfolk, Charlottesville and Arlington.
“He’s embraced, as of a couple of days ago, bringing Donald Trump onto the campaign trail with him,” said Del. Alfonso H. Lopez (D-Arlington) at a conference Thursday in a Northam field office in Arlington.
“What does that say? Is this now a Trump-Gillespie ticket? It doesn’t say anything good about the future of Virginia.”
The Republican Party of Virginia countered with theatrics of its own, dispatching an intern to the Arlington event with a gift basket for Northam that included one of Trump’s red “Make America Great Again” hats.
To be sure, Gillespie has not begun embracing Trump with complete abandon.
He first talked up his ability to work with the administration in Norfolk, in the context of military spending that would be popular in the defense-heavy state. And he noted that he would still push for state priorities that Trump might oppose, such as Chesapeake Bay cleanup.
“If I’m elected governor of the commonwealth of Virginia, it’s not going to be my job to always be for President Trump or to always be against President Trump, which is how Ralph Northam sees his job,” Gillespie said. “It’s to always be for Virginia, and to fight for my fellow Virginians every single day.”
When Fredericks sought a yes-or-no response to whether he would want the president to campaign with him, Gillespie felt the need to offer a long justification before ultimately saying yes.
“I’d like to take the president, the vice president, Cabinet secretaries, other governors to our ports and, you know, see what we need to do to deepen and widen our channel and be the biggest port on the East Coast,” he said. “Would like to take the president — he’s been to coal country . . . and tell him about what we’re doing there.
“Take him into the Shenandoah Valley and talk about our agriculture sector. . . . When you’re a commonwealth where . . . 20 percent of your GDP is directly affected by federal spending, direct federal spending, to have a president who understands the needs of Virginia and a vice president, as well, and Cabinet secretaries, that’s in the service of the people of Virginia. So, absolutely!”
Fenit Nirappil contributed to this report.