Virginia's Republican nominee for governor Ed Gillespie is keeping President Trump at arm's length, suggesting he views him as a liability in his campaign against Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam.
Trump, in an unexpected Thursday evening tweet, urged Virginians to vote for Gillespie on Nov. 7, while charging that Northam was soft on gang violence. Gillespie welcomed the president's get-tough-on-crime message, but didn't have much to say about Trump himself.
That didn't go unnoticed by one big Trump supporter, John Fredericks, a talk radio host in Southern Virginia who asked Gillespie during a Friday conference call with reporters whether he wanted the president to campaign for him down the stretch.
Fredericks told the Washington Examiner in a subsequent interview that Gillespie's hesitance to embrace Trump could cost him on Election Day.
"Ed failed to capitalize on a golden opportunity to amplify the president's enthusiastic endorsement of him," said Fredericks, who served as the vice chairman of the Trump campaign in 2016.
"I was flabbergasted that the Gillespie campaign chose to downplay the president's tweet," he added. "This is a game changer. If Ed can motivate Trump voters to show up on Nov. 7, he'll win this election. A simple re-tweet and thank you would have gone a long way in solidifying Trump voters' support for Gillespie."
Gillespie is locked in a tight race with Northam with little more than four weeks to go in the campaign. The party out of power in the White House usually has the edge in Virginia gubernatorial contests. That, and Trump's low approval ratings in the state he lost to Democrat Hillary Clinton pose challenges for Gillespie.
That could explain the Republican's reticence to be seen with the president. It could hurt him in the politically moderate, population-heavy Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., where the race could be won or lost.
But by putting too much distance between himself and Trump, Gillespie risks depressing turnout among the conservative base in other parts of the state. They're big fans of Trump, and Gillespie needs them to beat Northam.
On Thursday, Trump tweeted: "Ralph Northam, who is running for Governor of Virginia, is fighting for the violent MS-13 killer gangs & sanctuary cities. Vote Ed Gillespie!" The next day, Gillespie was faced with questions about the tweet, and the president's support, during a conference call his campaign convened to promote an endorsement from a key police group.
Asked by one reporter to describe his reaction was to the tweet, Gillespie said: "I wasn't aware that the president was going to tweet, but obviously not surprised that the Republican president is supportive of the Republican nominee for governor of the commonwealth of Virginia … I guess I'm a little surprised that it's news."
Fredericks followed up with a question about why the Gillespie campaign didn't re-tweet Trump's supportive Twitter post, and whether he believes strong backing from the president will help him win. Again, Gillespie tiptoed around the issue of embracing Trump.
"I think the last count I saw was the president has 40 million Twitter followers, so I think that obviously that got out there without the need for a re-tweet," Gillespie said. "But I will say this, I think this issue concerning MS-13 and its growing threat in the commonwealth is a very important one in this race."
Asked a third time to discuss his thoughts on Trump's tweet and whether he would welcome the president's direct involvement in the race, Gillespie again demurred. He focused on Trump's mention of the MS-13 gang, but ignored Trump's endorsement of his candidacy.
"I saw it come up on my iPhone, and my thought was, my ads must be running in D.C.," he said. "I do think it is an important issue, we've talked about MS-13 — we have different approaches, Lt. Gov. Northam and I, in terms of policies relative to law enforcement and what we think, what we believe will make Virginians safer.
Gillespie, asked a fourth time about Trump and whether he might stump for him in Virginia, sidestepped yet again. "We don't talk about campaign strategy. That's something that we discuss internally," he said.