In Virginia’s oddly timed elections for governor, held a year after presidential contests, history has repeated itself: The winning candidate lately has represented the opposite party as the newly elected president.
In 2009, Republican Bob McDonnell’s election followed President Obama’s seizure of the White House for Democrats. Eight years earlier, Democrat Mark R. Warner was elected governor after Republican George W. Bush’s presidential election.
That has added a sense of historical imperative to Republican efforts here, particularly since this year’s Republican candidate, Ed Gillespie, has trailed Democrat Ralph Northam in early polls.
So it fell to Vice President Mike Pence on Saturday to try to rev up Republican enthusiasm in this coal country section of Virginia. It is a place similar to those that helped Trump win states like Pennsylvania and Ohio last year, although he fell short in Virginia.
Trump remains highly popular in southwestern Virginia, and Pence reminded voters gathered at the Washington County fairgrounds why: moving to overturn Obama’s clean energy programs, deregulating industries and the continuing effort, unsuccessful so far, to repeal and replace Obamacare.
Pence repeatedly cited Trump’s endorsement of Gillespie, an endorsement that Gillespie has not gone out of his way to highlight in the more moderate or liberal areas of the state. In that, Pence was helped by a Saturday evening Trump tweet declaring that “Ed Gillespie will never let you down.”
Still, much of Pence’s speech was a defense of the president and the acts of the administration.
“I’m here because I stand with President Donald Trump,” Pence said as he opened his remarks, quickly adding an allusion to Trump’s battle with some NFL players over their silent protests during the national anthem.“I stand with Ed Gillespie for all Virginians. And come to think of it, I always stand for our flag and our national anthem.”
He said Trump was fighting “for the lifeblood” of the area.
“President Trump has been keeping the promises he made to the people of Virginia,” the vice president said. “Because of Donald Trump, the war on coal is over.”
Pence called attention to military veterans in the audience — Virginia has many active military bases and a population suffused with veterans — even if at times he seemed to stretch credulity: “History will record that President Donald Trump was the best friend the armed forces of the United States ever had,” he said.
Such effusiveness is typical fare for vice presidents, who more than anything else are charged with spreading a positive image of the administration far and wide. So is optimism, which Pence demonstrated as he promised both tax reform and an Obamacare repeal in fairly short order, an assessment not shared by other Republicans.
“We’ve made great progress and we’re just getting started,” he said. “Before this Congress gets out in 2018, we’re going to repeal and replace Obamacare.”
He attributed the defeat so far to Republican-controlled Capitol Hill not being “quite ready.”
Pence sought to link Trump’s proposed tax framework with the one put forward by Gillespie, who has promised to cut income taxes across the board.“We’re going to pass the largest tax cut in American history and we’re going to pass it this year,” Pence said of the federal effort.
Pence appeared on behalf of Gillespie on the same day his own predecessor, Joe Biden, spoke at an event for Northam — an indication of the importance both major parties place on the race.
An even bigger political figure will campaign for Northam next week: former President Obama.
Trump has not announced plans to personally campaign for Gillespie. That move would be fraught with potential for alienating the middle-of-the-road voters whom Gillespie needs and who have recoiled from Trump.