ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- Virginia's gubernatorial election Tuesday, a contest with outsized national implications, could give Democrats a needed political victory or deliver a demoralizing defeat that could exacerbate divisions within the party.
The election pits Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam against former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie in the biggest test of strength between the parties since Donald Trump became president.
Democrats are on edge because the race seems to be neck-and-neck, despite their considerable advantages in this Democratic-leaning state.
"The party definitely needs a boost in morale," said Doug Deaton, a retired firefighter who attended a Northam rally here. "I hope the race will be a stepping stone for Democrats to replace Donald Trump."
Mr. Northam is trying to channel that anti-Trump sentiment -- at least when he is campaigning in liberal precincts like northern Virginia.
"We are watching a clown show in Washington, D.C.," he told supporters Thursday at a storefront campaign office. "We do not have to accept that as the new normal."
But some Democrats worry that Mr. Northam hasn't pushed the anti-Trump message hard enough and fear his low-key style has been no match for hard-hitting negative ads from Mr. Gillespie.
The closing weeks have been dominated by immigration issues that fire up the GOP base, while splitting Democrats. Days before the election, Mr. Northam was attacked by some liberal activists for saying he opposed sanctuary cities.
And just as Mr. Northam was trying to unify Democrats for the final push, the national party erupted in infighting that ripped open wounds of the 2016 presidential primary. Former interim party chairwoman Donna Brazile, in a new book made fresh allegations that the party apparatus was rigged in favor of Hillary Clinton against primary rival Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
"The Democrats, they love to have this circular firing squad," Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who is campaigning for Mr. Northam, said Friday on MSNBC. "Let's focus on winning elections."
Polls have fluctuated, but for weeks most showed a steady lead for Mr. Northam. But a Real Clear Politics polling average shows it tightening, with the Democrat's edge at just 1.9 percentage points as of Sunday.
Running in a state Mrs. Clinton won by five points, Mr. Gillespie has been trying to keep the race from becoming a referendum on Mr. Trump.
"My opponent has spent all his time talking about President Trump, but that's not what voters are concerned about," said Mr. Gillespie in a phone interview from the Shenandoah Valley. "Voters want to know what I'm going to do."
Still, the Gillespie campaign has hit Trumpian themes and the president has tweeted support. Mr. Gillespie is walking a tightrope to court both independents and Trump voters who backed his GOP rival, Corey Stewart, who had nearly beat him in the primary.
"Ed Gillespie has run a focused campaign in an environment that many thought would not be friendly to Republicans," said Jon Thompson, spokesman for the Republican Governors Association. "Republicans across the country will be looking to Gillespie's campaign for successful lessons on how to navigate whatever is happening in Washington."
The state's legislature is controlled by Republicans, but Virginia voted Democratic in the last three presidential elections. The state's two senators are Democrats. Mr. McAuliffe, barred by law from seeking another term, is very popular. Mr. Northam has bested his rival in fundraising.
Speaking recently to reporters, Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez declined to cast this as a do-or-die contest.
"It's not the only race we're focused on," Mr. Perez said. "We don't put our hopes on any one state at any one time."
That nonchalance belies the urgency among leaders and activists. The DNC has invested a record $1.5 million in Virginia. In the final weekend, most DNC staff was deployed to the state.
"Democrats are at an all-hands-on-deck moment," said Jane Kleeb, Nebraska Democratic Party chair, who will be in Virginia to pitch in.
Both candidates are a mismatch with their parties' ascendant antiestablishment wing. Mr. Gillespie is a former lobbyist and insider in a party increasingly dominated by outsiders. Mr. Northam, a physician-turned-politician, has a liberal record on most issues, but he is not a hero of progressive activists, many of whom supported his primary rival former Rep. Tom Perriello.
Mr. Gillespie's focus on immigration is putting Mr. Northam in a tough spot with his left flank. One Gillespie ad cast his rival as supporting sanctuary cities, and alleged that policy could fuel the spread of the MS-13 gang. Mr. Northam denounced the ad as fear mongering.
But after Mr. Northam said in a local news interview he was opposed to sanctuary cities, Democracy for America, a national group that had not endorsed him, called him a "racist." That attack was denounced by Howard Dean, the group's founder and former DNC chair. And a Northam spokesman said, "He has always been a consistent friend to the Latino and New American communities."
Coming down to the wire, Northam supporters feel buffeted by the swirl of national politics around them.
"The entire nation is watching this race," said Kristin Pradko, a gun control activist at the Northam rally. "It's a bellwether and it's important for Virginia to demonstrate we are not happy with the direction this country is going."
Write to Janet Hook at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
November 05, 2017 12:53 ET (17:53 GMT)