- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 9, 2017

President Trump’s coattails will be put to the test in a string of special elections this year, where Republicans clamor for his support and Democrats seek to turn anti-Trump energy into upsets on red territory.

Several Trump acolytes are on the ballot, most notably in Virginia, where a former campaign chairman is running for governor, and in Georgia, where Bruce LeVell, who spearheaded minority outreach for the Trump campaign, is part of a crowded field of candidates looking to fill the congressional seat left empty by Mr. Trump’s health and human services secretary.

“I got in the race because I believe in the president’s agenda,” Mr. LeVell said. “He is going to need a champion in the House.”

That is a common theme among the 11 other Republicans in the primary for a usually reliably red district but where Mr. Trump won by a thin 1 percentage point margin in November.

Republican candidates in special elections in Kansas, Montana and South Carolina — who also had lawmakers leave Congress to join the Trump administration — make similar boasts of allegiance to Mr. Trump.

The White House has remained mum about the role the president envisions playing in this year’s election cycle, which also features governors races in Virginia and New Jersey. Mr. Trump’s political team, however, has kept in regular contact with state Republican Party leaders and with some of the campaigns, officials said.

“I think that President Trump, as he said last weekend at the donor retreat, that he is very excited about the upcoming elections,” said Rick Gorka, spokesman for the Republican National Committee. “We expect him to be very aggressive fundraising, campaigning and working with our candidates.”

In the Virginia governor’s race, Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart, a former state chairman of the Trump campaign, is looking for the president’s help to put him at the top in the four-candidate Republican primary.

Polls show establishment stalwart Ed Gillespie, former chairman of the Republican National Committee and former adviser to President George W. Bush, leading in the primary race for governor.

The Virginia Republican Party hopes to end a losing streak in top-ballot statewide elections that go back to 2009. Democrats have won 10 of the 14 races in Virginia for governor, senator or president since 2001.

“We know that the Trump administration is watching. They contacted our campaign and said we are watching the race,” Mr. Stewart said.

“If Trump came out and supported me, I think that would be the kill shot, but on the other hand, to be completely honest, I want to be my own man,” he said. “I don’t want to be Trump’s boy when I am governor of Virginia. I will be standing tall for Virginians and will not just be a pawn for President Trump, though I greatly respect him and I think he respects that independence as well.”

At a debate Tuesday, Mr. Stewart and Mr. Gillespie argued over who supported Mr. Trump the most.

The exchange prompted the Democratic Governors Association to declare that the Republican primary had become a “Trump Lovefest.”

“So far, the GOP primary is just a race to be Donald Trump’s right-hand man in Virginia,” said Jared Leopold, the association’s director. “Instead of talking about Virginia’s economic future, Stewart and Gillespie argue about who can better bring Trump’s politics to Virginia. President Trump and his policies are deeply unpopular in Virginia, but apparently, Gillespie and Stewart never got the memo.”

Democrats are looking to each of these races — especially the special congressional elections in April, May and June — as evidence that the party is rebounding from a humiliating loss in November and riding a backlash against Mr. Trump’s early performance as president.

“President Trump will overshadow all of the 2017 elections, just like he overshadows everything else,” said Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of Inside Elections.

“While each election this year will have a Trump component, they also have unique circumstances that make it difficult to draw larger conclusions,” he said. “That doesn’t mean the special elections aren’t important or aren’t indicative of larger trends; it’s just often hard to tell right when they happen. One thing is certain: The winning party will declare that it’s a larger trend while the losing party will say it’s an aberration.”

He added, “Putting New Jersey and Virginia aside for a moment, the race to watch is in Georgia,” in the 6th Congressional District.

Jon Ossoff has emerged as the top Democrat in the race to replace Tom Price, who is now health and human services secretary.

Mr. Ossoff won the early support of Rep. John Lewis, the Georgia Democrat and civil rights icon who skipped Mr. Trump’s inauguration and sparked a political firestorm by saying, “I don’t see this president-elect as a legitimate president.”

Mr. Ossoff touted Mr. Lewis’ endorsement as a badge of honor, putting the congressman’s quote across the top of his campaign website: “Unite behind Jon and send a clear message that Donald Trump doesn’t represent our values.”

Mr. Ossoff called Mr. Trump “an embarrassment and a threat to prosperity and health, justice, and security in the Sixth District.”

“I’m running to stop him and to fight for our community in Congress,” he said.

Republicans, however, are jostling to get as close as they can to Mr. Trump.

“As a Trump voter and supporter, I’d be honored to have the president’s support,” former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel, a leading Republican in the race, told The Washington Times. “I will be an effective advocate in Congress on behalf of the president’s agenda of repealing Obamacare, fighting illegal immigration and jump-starting the economy.”

Just to the north, the race to replace Mick Mulvaney, who vacated his seat to accept the top spot at the Office of Management and Budget, in South Carolina’s 5th Congressional District, is still taking shape — though the candidates have been quick to cozy up to Mr. Trump in conventional and unconventional ways.

Tommy Pope, speaker pro tem in the South Carolina House of Representatives, has taken what appears to the quirkiest approach. He is holding a contest to win an Ivanka Trump women’s bag that is no longer being carried in some stores.

“Since the liberal media and national retailers are trying all they can to hurt Ivanka Trump’s business, we’ve decided to give away one of her pursues to show our support,” the PopeforCongress.com website says. “You can’t get it at Nordstrom, but you can get it here!”

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