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Democrats Play Trump Card in Virginia. Will It Put Them Over the Top?

The Democratic nominee for governor in Virginia releases an ad critical of President Donald Trump, but will it be enough to pull him over the finish line?
Image: Virginia Governor's Debate
In this frame grab, Democrat Ralph Northam debates Republican Ed Gillespie (not shown) on September 19, 2017 for the Virginia governor's race in Virginia.NBC News

Ralph Northam, the Democratic nominee for governor in Virginia, is hoping that President Donald Trump puts him over the top — by voicing his opposition.

This week, Northam’s campaign released a TV ad directly tying his Republican opponent, Ed Gillespie, to Trump, whose job-approval rating in the state is stuck in the 30s and low 40s, according to polls in the race.

“If Donald Trump is helping Virginia, I’ll work with him,” Northam says to the camera. “But Donald Trump proposed cutting Virginia’s school funding, rolling back our clean air and water protections, and taking away health care from thousands of Virginians.”

Northam closes, “As a candidate for governor, I sponsored this ad because I’ve stood up to Donald Trump on all of it. Ed Gillespie refuses to stand up to him at all.”

It’s the second recent Northam ad that has mentioned Trump. “Now ‘Enron Ed’ is lobbying for Donald Trump’s agenda, like cuts to Virginia’s school funding and taking away health care from thousands of Virginians,” the earlier ad said.

These advertisements come after Northam’s two-word description of Trump — “narcissistic maniac” — was one reason he defeated Tom Perriello in Virginia’s Democratic primary in June. (Perriello had made his opposition to Trump one of his top issues, but Northam co-opted him with his “narcissistic maniac” line.)

Maybe the most important question in the race, with a month before the Nov. 7 election, is whether Northam's latest messaging against Trump and Gillespie will make a difference in what has been polling as a close race.

Polls show that the president is definitely a weak link for Republicans in Virginia, a state Trump lost to Hillary Clinton by 5 percentage points in 2016.

A recent Monmouth University poll, which showed Northam leading Gillespie by 5 points among likely voters, had Trump’s job approval rating at 40 percent in the state.

Perhaps more important, the president’s approval rating among undecided voters and those preferring a third-party candidate was 10 points lower in that poll — 30 percent.

Another poll, from Quinnipiac University, showed Trump’s job approval at just 32 percent among independent voters in Virginia, suggesting that the persuadable middle in the state is largely opposed to the president.

The Northam campaign tells NBC News that tying Trump and Gillespie to specific policies, like education and health care, is more effective than just stating opposition to the Republican president.

But Gillespie spokesperson David Abrams responded to the ad, asking, "at this point what, exactly, is Ralph Northam running on? He changes his positions daily, doesn’t put forward any real policy proposals, and is largely invisible on the trail. It’s becoming a Seinfeld episode: A campaign about nothing."

In their first debate in July, Gillespie asked Northam how he would work with President Trump given his anti-Trump rhetoric.

“We need to have a governor who can work with the president, the vice president, the administration,” Gillespie said. “What are you going to do as our governor? Call the White House and say, ‘Please put me through to the narcissistic maniac?’”

In their second debate, moderated by NBC’s Chuck Todd, Northam answered, “If we can build up the military in this country, then I will do everything that I can to work with our president.”

"But there are some things that bother me, that are very detrimental to the commonwealth of Virginia," Northam added. "The first was the travel ban. ... My opponent supported the travel ban."

When Todd asked Gillespie if he wanted Trump to campaign for him, Gillespie responded: “I’ll take help from anybody, anywhere. This is going to be a very close race.”

If Northam wins next month, Democrats will see opposition to Trump as a successful strategy for next year’s midterm races, particularly in Democratic-leaning states like Virginia.

But if Gillespie is elected, Republicans will have a playbook on how to win — even when their president isn’t popular.