Washington (CNN)Can Republicans win tough races by getting close — but not too close — to President Donald Trump, adopting his tactics without actually campaigning with him?
Can Democrats win swing states by criticizing Trump, but not too much — pledging to work with the President when possible?
In Virginia’s governor election Tuesday, Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and Republican Ed Gillespie will test whether those strategies are enough to drive their bases to the polls and win over suburban moderates in the most important election of 2017.
The Virginia and New Jersey governor’s races — a year after every presidential election — are always seen as a test of how voters perceive the sitting President. This year, Virginia, in particular, looks like a strong gauge of Trump’s performance — and a proving ground for the strategies both parties hope will work in the 2018 midterm elections.
Here are five big questions for Tuesday’s elections:
1. Can Trump’s tactics sell without Trump?
Trump visited his golf course in Virginia 15 times between Gillespie winning the GOP gubernatorial primary and the general election. But he didn’t once hold an event with Republican candidate in the most important race of 2017.
Gillespie might not have wanted to campaign with Trump — but he certainly borrowed heavily from Trump’s tactics and signature issues.
Long known as an advocate for a bigger Republican tent and more inclusive immigration policies, Gillespie has taken an alarmist turn this year. His TV ads have included striking images of MS-13 gangs displaying the words “kill, rape, control,” as well as Gillespie pledging to keep Confederate monuments up, and hitting Democrats for automatically restoring the voting rights of former felons who have completed their sentences.
Those culture warrior tactics were designed to make sure Trump’s base turned out for Gillespie, who nearly lost the Republican primary to Corey Stewart. But they alienated a lot of Gillespie’s old friends.
Gillespie spokesman David Abrams refuted those critiques, saying, “Ed is surging in the polls because Republicans are united behind his campaign, and because he is running on substantive policies broadly popular with the people of Virginia.”
The question is whether Trump voters will buy Gillespie’s authenticity and turn out to vote for him — or if they’ll see Gillespie’s refusal to be seen near Trump as a better reflection of his allegiances and stay home.
2. Can Obama fix Democrats’ off-year problems?
Former President Barack Obama oversaw the atrophy of the Democratic Party at the state and local level — a result of the party’s failure to turn out its voters in non-presidential elections that led to losing about 1,000 state legislative seats. Now that he’s out of office, Obama is trying to convince Democratic voters that these races really do matter.
“Off-year elections, midterm elections — Democrats sometimes, y’all get a little sleepy. You get a little complacent,” Obama said during a rally with Northam in Richmond last month.
“And so as a consequence, folks wake up and they’re surprised — ‘How come we can’t get things through Congress? How come we can’t get things through the state house?’ ” Obama said. “Because you slept through the election.”
In particular, Northam’s campaign has been laser focused on turning out black voters. Those black voters make up about 20% of Virginia’s electorate and tend to vote strongly Democratic. It’s why his event with Obama was in Richmond, a city with a sizeable African-American population.
And make no mistake, Obama himself could be the most important salesman here. If his involvement in Northam’s campaign can boost turnout, Democrats across the 2018 midterm map would see him as a potential game-changer.
3. Will progressive groups’ ground troops lead to turnout?
Outside groups are playing a big role in Northam’s campaign — supplying digital advertising reinforcements for a candidate who has only aired TV ads as well as ground troops who have made calls and knocked on doors for weeks.
Perhaps the leader of those groups is Planned Parenthood, which has a lot on the line — not just in the governor’s race, but for lieutenant governor, where Democrat Justin Fairfax faces Republican Jill Holtzman Vogel. The Republican is known for having sponsored a 2012 bill that would have required women seeking abortions to undergo vaginal ultrasounds — which Planned Parenthood vehemently opposed.
Other Democratic groups have bickered about Virginia since Northam defeated former Rep. Tom Perriello in the gubernatorial primary. That split was on vivid display last week when Democracy For America announced it wouldn’t back Northam’s “racist” campaign while making calls for other Democratic candidates.
But a share of the credit for wins in statewide and even state assembly contests would go to Planned Parenthood, which announced in August it would spend $3 million to help Northam.
4. Will there be a shocker?
The reason so much focus is on Virginia is that Tuesday’s other big contests all feature heavy favorites. But close elections have a way of sneaking up on people.
In New Jersey, Democrat Phil Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive and US ambassador to Germany, is expected to cruise past Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno. That’s in large part because of the Chris Christie factor: The outgoing Republican governor’s approval rating is in the teens, making him the least popular governor in America. And while Guadagno has tried to create some distance — hitting Christie after he was photographed on a closed beach during a state government shutdown — she’s still Christie’s No. 2.
In New York City, mayor Bill de Blasio campaigned alongside Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and is looking to build his status with progressive voters even outside the city.
If any of these contests tighten up, it’d set off alarms across both parties nationally.
5. Can Democrats take full control in Washington state?
One down-ballot race to watch: a state senate contest in Washington.
If Democrat Manka Dhingra defeats Republican Jinyoung Lee Englund, control of the senate would tip into Democratic hands. Democrats already control the state house and governor’s office — which means a win in that race would give them the “trifecta”: unified control of Washington’s government.
This is incredibly important. Right now, Republicans have that “trifecta” in 26 states, which gives them broad authority not just over laws and budgets, but the redistricting process every 10 years. Democrats, though, only have such control in six states — California, Oregon, Hawaii, Delaware, Connecticut and Rhode Island. It’s perhaps the most vivid example of the party’s collapse during Obama’s tenure, and an imbalance that reflects Democrats’ broad structural disadvantages.
Full party control matters. In many states where Republicans are in charge, their lawmakers have passed right-to-work laws and voter ID laws, and handle the once-a-decade redistricting process alone. The more those structural advantages are locked in, the harder it is for Democrats to regain what they’ve lost.