ABINGDON, Va. — Vice President Pence flew to the farthest, reddest corner of Virginia on Saturday to urge coal-country voters who came out in droves for President Trump last year to do the same for Republican gubernatorial contender Ed Gillespie.
“The president sent me here to ask the people of Virginia to do everything in your power to elect Ed Gillespie as your next governor of Virginia,” Pence told a half-filled exhibition hall at the Washington County Fairgrounds in southwest Virginia.
In a picturesque but economically depressed county that gave Trump 75 percent of the vote in November, Pence’s appearance was meant to excite rural voters for Gillespie, an establishment figure who is in a neck-and-neck race against Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D).
Theirs is the nation’s only competitive governor’s race this year, drawing national attention and money.
Some see the race as a possible early referendum on Trump and a preview of next year’s congressional midterm elections.
A former Republican National Committee chairman, Washington lobbyist and counselor to President George W. Bush, Gillespie has been cool toward the president. He needs Trump voters to have any chance of winning a purple state that has not given the GOP a statewide win since 2009.
Gillespie has been looking for ways to fire up Trump’s base without losing moderates and inflaming Democrats in Northern Virginia. It has been an awkward dance at times, as Gillespie has sought to thread the needle on such issues as transgender bathroom use, Confederate monuments and illegal immigration.
Enter Mike Pence, the buttoned-down, businesslike former governor of Indiana, a man with close-cropped white hair and a personal reserve so profound that he declines to dine or meet alone with any woman who is not his wife. He’s Trump’s second-in-command, but Gillespie is comfortable with him.
Pence and his wife, Karen, have been friends for years with Gillespie and his wife, Cathy. Karen Pence appeared at a “Women for Ed” fundraiser for Gillespie in Fairfax in September.
Pence compared Gillespie to Trump a number of times in his 24-minute address.
“Ed Gillespie is fighting for the lifeblood of southwest Virginia,” Pence said. “Like President Trump, Ed digs coal.”
Pence described Trump as a “friend to Ed Gillespie,” promising the administration would cut income taxes across the board nationally, just as Gillespie wants to cut state income taxes by 10 percent.
Trump endorsed Gillespie just over a week earlier in a nighttime tweet that seemed to catch Gillespie and White House staff by surprise. Gillespie did not retweet or even acknowledge it until reporters asked him about it the following day. Gillespie said he did not consider the president’s endorsement of a fellow Republican newsworthy.
Trump touted Gillespie again in a tweet Saturday, saying: “The Democrats in the Southwest part of Virginia have been abandoned by their Party. Republican Ed Gillespie will never let you down!”
Gillespie made no mention of it, but Pence announced it to the crowd.
The tweet drew the attention of Susan Swecker, the state’s Democratic Party chairwoman.
“Why don’t you stop tweeting and starting giving a damn about SW VA?” she tweeted in response. “Your executive order on health care puts lives on the line.”
The crowd was enthusiastic, shouting “USA! USA!” as Pence took and left the stage, but it was far smaller than the 1,200 that organizers had expected. Gillespie’s campaign put the number at about 600.
Emma Clark, a Republican activist, worked the phones earlier in the day to try to drum up more attendees. She and others said it was hard to compete with other activities on a beautiful Saturday, including football, hunting and the wedding of two local Republican leaders, which drew a number of GOP activists as guests. A tractor pull took place on the fairgrounds just as the rally kicked off.
“That doesn’t mean they’re not going to come out to vote,” said Augustus Chafin, 23, son of state Sen. A. Benton Chafin Jr. (R-Russell).
The crowd greeted Gillespie warmly and let out its biggest cheer when he mentioned Trump by name, something the candidate normally avoids doing in a purple state that went for Hillary Clinton by five points.
“I want to thank [Pence] and want to thank President Trump for repealing the Clean Power Plan here,” Gillespie said to cheers.
Some rally attendees said they wished the understated Gillespie would adopt Trump’s swaggering style. He nearly lost the June 13 primary to Prince William County Supervisor Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large), a Trump acolyte who derided him as “Establishment Ed.”
“He’s too polite,” said Clark, 79.
But Wayne Stevens, a machinist and cattle farmer sporting overalls and a cowboy hat, was all in for Gillespie. “I think he’s more for the working man [than Northam],” Stevens said.