FAIRFAX, Va. — Ten speakers, one hour, and not one mention of President Trump during Monday evening’s closing campaign rally for Ed Gillespie, Republican nominee for governor in Virginia.
There was a passing reference to Vice President Mike Pence, even former President George W. Bush.
But one after the other, Republican VIPs took the microphone in the packed, overheated basement of the Fairfax County GOP headquarters to encourage voters to turn out for the party ticket in Tuesday’s crucial election. One after the other, nary a word about Trump, not even his name.
Nobody even offered the political bromide about Trump needing a partner he can work with in Virginia to move the commonwealth and the nation forward.
“I don’t think that you necessarily have to focus on one person who’s in power to make your case for any office,” said Jeff Dove Jr., a Republican who has volunteered for Gillespie and is running for Congress next year in Virginia’s suburban Washington 11th Congressional District, held by Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Democrat.
Trump is broadly unpopular in Virginia, a commonwealth he lost in 2016 to Democrat Hillary Clinton, particularly here in the suburbs of Northern Virginia.
That electoral battleground, where Gillespie chose to finish the final full day of his campaign, could determine the outcome of what has turned into a close race with Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam.
In that sense, ignoring Trump, who offered Gillespie encouragement via Twitter on Monday while traveling in Asia, was strategically sound.
Gillespie, and the cascade of Republican bigwigs who revved up the crowd for him, preferred to talk kitchen-table issues, like transportation, education, and jobs.
“Yes, 21 policy positions. He’s got so many policy positions he’s got to open another website,” said Jill Vogel, the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor. Added Gillespie, with a chuckle: “I have 21 specific, detailed policy proposals. You may have heard that.”
It was ironic, given how Gillespie has surged against Northam down the stretch and grabbed the momentum by cribbing from Trump’s appeals to the cultural anxieties of suburban and exurban whites. Vows to crack down on Hispanic gangs and illegal immigration, his support for preserving Confederate statues, and his opposition to kneeling during the national anthem have dominated his advertising campaign.
But Gillespie didn’t give these topics much airtime Monday, as he urged volunteers to give it their all, just one more day until the polls close at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, keeping the focus on his policy white papers to improve Virginia’s quality of life. The contradiction didn’t phase Gillespie’s fervent supporters, who also appeared to keep to a Northern Virginia script that left out talk of Trump.
“The greatest thing he’s done is putting his 20 policy positions together; No. 1 being the economy,” said Paul Kyle, 73, of Fairfax.
“Virginians are really suffering right now with lack of jobs and lack of making health care affordable. That’s what they’re focused on, they’re not focused on these other issues,” said Joan Smutko, a retiree from Arlington.
A win by Gillespie would nevertheless be a victory for Trump and his agenda, and a deal a devastating blow to the Democrats.
That’s especially the case given Northam’s structural advantages: Trump’s low numbers, nationally and in Virginia; the state’s Democratic lean in recent statewide races; and the fact that the party not in the White House usually wins, granted it didn’t work out that way four years ago.
Gillespie was to hit the road one more time, on Election Day, for a tour of polling precincts around the commonwealth, before attending his hoped-for victory party in Richmond Tuesday evening.
Joining him Monday on the final regular day of campaigning in Fairfax were Republican National Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel, Virginia GOP Chairman John Whitbeck, Fairfax County Chairman Matt Ames, Fairfax County Supervisor John Cook, and others.
"The eyes of the nation are on Virginia. And you know what? The eyes of the nation are on Fairfax County," said Pete Snyder, chairman of the Gillespie campaign.