Richmond — A former chairman of Donald Trump’s Virginia campaign said Thursday that the White House is in “very serious talks” with Ed Gillespie’s gubernatorial campaign about having the president stump for him in the state.
A Trump rally could fire up Trump supporters for Gillespie, a longtime Republican Party fixture who has struggled to find the right footing regarding the anti-establishment Trump.
A Trump appearance could pose risks for Gillespie in purple Virginia, where Trump’s approval ratings are well below 40 percent. Hillary Clinton beat Trump by five points in Virginia last year — the only Southern state won by the Democrat.
Most public polls show Gillespie tied or slightly trailing the Democrat, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam.
The White House and Gillespie campaign are in “very serious talks” about such a presidential appearance as a means of boosting the Republican’s chances in his neck-and-neck race against Northam, said John Fredericks, a conservative radio host.
He announced that plans were in the works on his show Thursday morning and later elaborated in an interview with The Washington Post.
“The days of Ed Gillespie threading the needle with President Trump are coming to an end,” Fredericks told The Post. “And he’s got to get on stage with him, and motivate Trump voters to get out on November 7th in huge numbers, enthusiastically, to support this Republican ticket if he’s going to win.”
The Northam campaign announced Wednesday that former president Barack Obama will appear at a rally with Northam in Richmond next week, upping the ante for Trump.
“Obama’s coming. They’ve got to counter it,” Fredericks said.
Fredericks, who was co-chairman and later chairman of Trump’s Virginia campaign, said he has heard from “multiple sources” that the White House and Gillespie campaign are “trying to get a date for the president to come to Virginia,” most likely at the end of the campaign.
A few hours later on Twitter, Fredericks clarified he was talking about a “potential” Trump rally and his information was “not sourced from any official in the Gillespie campaign.”
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said there were “no plans that I’m aware of at this time.”
Gillespie spokesman David Abrams said only this: “We do not discuss campaign strategy with the media.”
Virginia is holding the only competitive statewide election in the nation on Nov. 7, an election that both major parties see as a test of electoral politics in the Trump era and a hint of what may come in the 2018 midterms.
A former chairman of the Republican National Committee, Washington lobbyist and adviser to then-President George W. Bush, Gillespie has been uncomfortable with any association with Trump even as he has recently launched ads about illegal immigration and Confederate statues that could appeal to the president’s supporters.
Republicans have not won a statewide election in Virginia since 2009. Gillespie needs support from both Trump voters as well as independents to have any chance of overcoming the advantage Northam has in populous, heavily blue Northern Virginia.
Gillespie avoided mentioning the president during the GOP primary in the spring, which he nearly lost to Corey A. Stewart, a bombastic campaigner who ran in the anti-establishment Trump mold and lambasted Gillespie as “Establishment Ed.”
Immediately after the primary, the White House political team urged Gillespie to hire Trump strategists and embrace issues that resonate with Trump voters. Gillespie brought on at least one Trump strategist and started talking about the dangers of illegal immigration and the need to preserve Confederate statues. The campaign, noting that crime is a perennial GOP election theme and polls show a majority of Virginians do not want the statues removed, contend those positions appeal to swing voters as much as the Trump base.
Still, when the president endorsed Gillespie via tweet last week, the candidate did not retweet or even acknowledge it until reporters asked him about it the following day. Gillespie said he did not consider the president’s endorsement of a fellow Republican newsworthy.
Gillespie has been more comfortable with Vice President Pence, a personal friend for several years, who will fly to ruby red Southwest Virginia on Saturday to headline a campaign rally for him. On the same day, former vice president Joe Biden is appearing in Northern Virginia with Northam.