Racial politics and President Trump are roiling Virginia's governor's race and threatening to derail Republican nominee Ed Gillespie.
Gillespie is saying and doing all the right things in the wake of a white supremacist uprising and left-wing counter-protest in Charlottesville, Va., and Trump's decision to spread equal blame for the unrest between the racists and opposition demonstrators.
But Virginia Republicans fear events and the president's reaction have irrevocably nationalized the race, energizing lackluster Democratic nominee, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, and overwhelming Gillespie and his strategy of campaigning on local, kitchen table issues.
"This is where the Democrats want this race and the Republicans don't," a Virginia Republican insider said Wednesday, on condition of anonymity in order to speak candidly.
The Nov. 7 contest is perhaps remarkably competitive considering history, that Trump lost the state last year to Democrat Hillary Clinton, and his poor job approval ratings.
The president is sitting at a low 38 percent nationally, on top of which the party in control of the White House tends to lose the Virginia governor's race, although that did not happen in 2013. Yet Northam only led Gillespie by 5.5 percentage points in the latest RealClearPolitics.com average.
Republicans had confidence in Gillespie to overcome the deficit.
They like his prospects in population heavy and moderate to liberal-leaning, Northern Virginia versus Northam, a centrist product of the Eastern Shore who has been forced to tack left to satisfy an increasingly hardline progressive base.
Now they're fretting about a possible surge of Democratic college students and African Americans motivated by Charlottesville and Trump's response, capped by his explosive Tuesday news conference, that might have otherwise stayed home, while Gillespie strains to coalesce ardent Trump supporters and soft Republicans and independents unhappy with the president.
"It's clear this has put Ed Gillespie on the defensive," said Jared Leopold, spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association. "It's telling that he hasn't dared to utter president's name in last 72 hours. He's going to have to answer questions about where his loyalties lie."
Gillespie has forcefully denounced the white supremacists, neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klansmen who marched in Charlottesville, multiple times, in direct contradiction to Trump, who defended the "alternative right's" participation in the events of last weekend and insisted that leftist protesters were equally to blame.
Still, the Republican is doing his best to stick to the economic growth script he believes will win him the election.
"Ed is laser focused on putting forward policies that will create jobs, raise take-home pay, help people lift themselves out of poverty, improve our public schools, and ease traffic congestion," Gillespie campaign spokesman David Abrams said. "He's confident that a majority of Virginia voters will embrace this positive agenda in November."
Vice President Mike Pence was scheduled to headline a Gillespie fundraiser on Saturday but has since pulled out to participate in military meetings at Camp David, the presidential retreat in rural Maryland. A source close to Pence said the schedule change was not related to Charlottesville.
The Democrats' strategy of tying Gillespie to Trump was to be expected and hasn't appeared to appreciably burdened his campaign. But the fallout from events in Charlottesville could. The white supremacists picked the liberal Virginia college town for last weekend's demonstration because of the debate there over whether to remove from public property a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee.
The debate over what to do with the myriad Confederate memorials located throughout Virginia, an issue that nearly cost Gillespie the Republican nomination after his opponent, Corey Stewart, now a Senate candidate, came out strongly in favor of keeping the statues where they are, has been elevated.
In a lengthy statement issued Wednesday, Gillespie announced that he opposed removing the statues.
"My opponent now says that he believes decisions about historical statues are best made at the local level, but that they should be removed. I believe that decisions about historical statues are best made at the local level, but they should stay and be placed in historical context," he said. "These are legitimate differences, and I know Virginians are engaging in an ongoing, thoughtful conversation about these sensitive issues, one marked by respect and understanding."
Some Republicans aren't too worried yet, saying that Trump's serial eruptions haven't sunk Gillespie yet and it's likely this latest controversy will be overtaken by something new in the weeks to come, with that cycle repeating itself several times such that it numbs voters. They've also asserted that outgoing Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe's political posturing could hurt Northam.
Others are concerned this issue could dog Gillespie's campaign into the fall, even if he continues to do everything right. In part, they worry Stewart's counter message conveys sympathy for the "alt-right" and their racial grievances, which could muddy Gillespie's pitch perfect message and divide the GOP base.
"It's not helpful," a veteran Virginia Republican operative said. "Every time Corey Stewart opens his mouth and says something inflammatory reporters are going to run to Ed and say: 'What do you think?'"