As Trump Tweets About Gillespie, He Ducks Any Mention Of President On Trail

Cameron Joseph / Talking Points Memo

TYSONS, VA. – President Trump bear-hugged Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie (R) Thursday morning — and Gillespie didn’t seem so thrilled about the embrace.

Shortly before Gillespie was due to appear in tony Northern Virginia alongside moderate, Hispanic New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R), Trump sent a pair of tweets praising the GOP candidate for being “strong on crime” and supporting Confederate statues.

But Gillespie wasn’t keen to return the love — or talk about his own campaign advertisements accusing Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) of being soft on crime and wanting to “take our statues down.” He didn’t mention Trump or his own ads once during the event, and refused to answer TPM’s questions about either as he bolted for the elevator afterwards, avoiding eye contact.

At Gillespie’s Thursday morning event he sounded like the pro-immigrant, business-minded Ed of yesteryear. He talked up economic expansion and tax cuts while eschewing the culture wars that long have fueled some other GOP campaigns and powered President Trump to the White House last fall.

His campaign literature distributed at the event highlighted that he was a “son of an immigrant,” in a diverse part of the state that’s trended hard towards Democrats in the past decade as people from other parts of the country and world (including New Jersey native Gillespie) have poured in for well-paying jobs.

“My focus and my policies are about creating jobs and raising take home pay and helping people lift themselves out of poverty, improving our public schools, easing traffic congestion, addressing this awful opioid and heroin epidemic and a lot of other policies that we’ve got to get in place during the course of the next governorship,” Gillespie said during the event with the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce. “We really have to get Virginia growing again.”

But his campaign this time around has been far different. Gillespie, who nearly lost his primary to a poorly funded Trump backer, has pivoted hard right on immigration and hammered Northam for his call to take down Confederate monuments around the state following the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the summer.

Gillespie’s ads have focused heavily on that and slamming Northam for supporting “sanctuary cities” and being “weak on MS-13,” a violent gang, even though no such cities exist in Virginia and Gillespie’s statehouse allies forced a show vote on the matter to get Northam on record on the issue.

The only allusions to those controversial themes came not from Gillespie, but Martinez.

“Safety is number one for Ed of every single person that lives in this state and so for that reason he feels that then allows for economic growth. If you don’t have public safety people don’t want to come to a place that’s not safe,” Martinez said before pivoting back to taxes.

Gillespie is walking a tightrope in the state. He badly needs huge turnout from more culturally conservative Trump backers to have a shot in Virginia. But the state has trended from red to swing to blue-leaning in the past decade, and his hard-hitting ads risk alienating moderate and suburban and urban voters in places like Tysons.

That helps explain that while Northam was happy to campaign with President Obama last week, Gillespie has so far declined to stump with Trump — even as he had Vice President Mike Pence (R) to the state.

Public polls have been all over the place in the race, but the consensus from public and private surveys is Northam has maintained a small lead in the race, the biggest campaign of 2017.

The election is less than two weeks away.