People in Virginia’s coal country still love President Donald Trump, but not his pick to be their next governor.
Ed Gillespie is a Washington insider and Trump’s choice as Virginians prepare to go to the polls. The president promised southwest Virginia voters in a tweet, “Ed Gillespie will never let you down!”
Trump, who promised to revive the coal industry, had some of his biggest victory margins in Appalachia’s coal region last year. But those same voters said they know little about Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman, corporate lobbyist and multimillionaire who was raised in New Jersey and now lives in Northern Virginia.
The town of Pound, nestled near the Kentucky line, was once a booming coal center where the main drag got so busy with shoppers that people couldn’t find a parking spot. Now, many shops are boarded up with dusty “For Sale” signs. Some buildings are collapsing, overgrown with weeds. Jobs are scarce. Prescription pain pills are a major problem. The high school closed in 2011.
Eight out of 10 voters in Pound backed Trump, and some of the town’s remaining business owners and patrons say their faith has already been rewarded.
“I’ve seen more coal trucks in the last six months than I have in the past eight years,” said David Williams, who owns a TV repair and fishing gear store.
But Gillespie is about as un-Trumplike as a candidate can be, and generates much less interest. Williams said he’s doesn’t know much about who is on the Nov. 7 ballot or what they stand for.
“There hasn’t been a whole lot about the governor’s race being talked about right now,” he said. “I’m sure it’ll pick up when it gets closer to election time. I guess that’s right around the corner, isn’t it? I didn’t even think about that.”
Hair salon owner Kim Mcfall said what little she knows of Gillespie hasn’t impressed her — he’s not enough like Trump, and too much like a typical politician.
“He’s wishy washy,” she said, adding that she’ll probably vote for Gillespie — if she has the time on Election Day.
The enthusiasm gap highlights the growing chasm between Trump enthusiasts and Republican establishment figures like Gillespie and Alabama Sen. Luther Strange, who recently lost a GOP primary runoff against Roy Moore, a Trump-like candidate supported by former presidential strategist Steve Bannon.
Similar tensions could dominate next year’s midterm elections. Bannon is in open war with the GOP establishment and intends to lead a “populist nationalist conservative revolt” against incumbent Republicans in Congress.
Gillespie has largely tried to avoid talking about Trump on the campaign trail and declined to say whether he would invite Trump to campaign with him, fearful of alienating moderate voters in a state’s more urban areas. Most polls show Trump is unpopular overall in Virginia, the only Southern state Hillary Clinton won.
But he’ll need strong support from Virginia’s rural voters like those in Pound if he’s to counter Democrat Ralph Northam’s likely advantage in the state’s urban areas and Northern Virginia’s voter-rich suburbs. Once a Democratic stronghold, southwest Virginia has become reliably Republican in recent elections.
To win over Trump voters without directly embracing the president, Gillespie has tried to run on Trump-like issues such as cracking down on unlawful immigrants who commit crimes and preserving Virginia’s Confederate statues. He also campaigned recently in Abingdon, one of southwest Virginia’s biggest towns, with Vice President Mike Pence.
After a recent debate in Wise, about 11 miles from Pound, Gillespie told reporters that his focus on improving the state’s economy with tax cuts and fewer regulations will resonate with southwest Virginia voters.
“We need industrial hemp, we need to have more outdoor recreation jobs, we need to complete the Clinch River State Park. All the detailed specifics I’ve put forward tonight I think are going to rally people here and they’re going to turn out to vote for me,” Gillespie said.
But it’s unclear if that will be enough.
The editorial page of region’s biggest newspaper, the Bristol Herald Courier, recently declined to endorse either candidate, saying Gillespie gives the impression he’s uninformed about issues important to southwest Virginia. And the rally with Pence only drew a few hundred supporters. (A private fundraiser with former President George W. Bush in Richmond a few days later, by contrast, drew about twice as many.)
Cliff Cauthorne, a Pound council member and chaplain at a nearby state prison, said Gillespie has only one good option for motivating his town’s voters: a Trump rally, “or two.”
“Him coming here with a coal miner’s hat on, it would just fire people up. It would fire people up,” Cauthorne said.