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Virginia Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam, who is campaigning to be elected as the state's governor, leaves a rally in Richmond on November 6, 2017. Photo by REUTERS/Julia Rendleman

What to watch in the Virginia governor’s race

Voters will head to the polls Tuesday in Virginia and New Jersey for the only two governor’s races of 2017. Democrat Phil Murphy is expected to cruise to victory in heavily blue New Jersey. But the race in Virginia has tightened recently with Democrat Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam clinging to a small lead over his Republican opponent, Ed Gillespie.

The Virginia race has emerged in large part as a referendum on President Donald Trump’s divisive brand of politics, and the outcome Tuesday could shape how both parties’ approach the 2018 midterm election. Here are some issues to watch in Virginia ahead of Tuesday’s election.

Keeping Trump (but not his policies) at arms length

Trump’s presidency has loomed over the race in Virginia, forcing Gillespie to figure out how to run as a Republican in a left-leaning swing state that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman, reportedly never asked Trump to stump for him — and Trump stayed away from Virginia (and the New Jersey race as well).

But while Gillespie never appeared with Trump in person, he embraced many of the president’s policies, as well as some of Trump’s positions on controversial cultural issues. Gillespie vowed to protect Virginia’s Confederate statues and criticized NFL players for refusing to stand during the national anthem. Gillespie also took a hardline position on immigration, in effect running on Trump’s platform without publicly receiving a White House seal of approval.

A possible GOP template — or a cautionary tale?

Will the strategy work? If it does and Gillespie pulls off an upset — he was trailing Northam by less than five points in most polls heading into the final week — his campaign could become the GOP template next year. If Gillespie loses, however, Republicans running in moderate states in 2018 may decide they can’t afford to shy away from Trump.

The Democratic divide continues

Virginia’s contest proved the Democrats’ internal divisions remain unresolved, one year after Trump’s surprise victory exposed the deep rift between the moderate and far-left wings of the party. On issues like sanctuary cities, Northam tried staking out a middle ground that appealed to moderate Democrats and progressives alike. The approach was somewhat of a gamble in an off-year election where base voters on both sides will determine the outcome.

If Northam loses, he’ll face criticism that he didn’t do enough to energize the liberal wing of the party. It would also fuel the perception that Democrats remain disorganized and haven’t found a message beyond simply opposing Trump. Regardless of the outcome, the race has served as a reminder of the battle raging inside the Democratic Party.

Riling up the base

Democrats were hoping to enter the governor’s races having built some momentum with earlier victories in 2017. But Republicans dominated the special elections that took place after Trump won last November.

Democrats now have a chance to bounce back Tuesday, and the results in Virginia, in particular, will signal just how motivated Democrats are to send Trump a message. A large Democratic turnout in the state’s more liberal northern suburbs would be a welcome sign for the party; a low turnout there would be cause for alarm.

On the right, a strong showing by Gillespie in the southern Virginia counties that voted for Trump last year would reaffirm Trump’s popularity with his base. That would let Republicans breathe a little easier heading into the midterms (even if Gillespie loses). If conservative voters stay home, however, it would be a major warning sign.

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