Virginia's gubernatorial race is seen as an early referendum on Donald Trump's presidency. Though many voters don't care for the candidates, most do have something to say about the president. Michael Knigge reports.
Wesley Worrell stepped out of his large pickup truck in front of his local post office, which is open just four hours a day, in Newton, an incorporated area in Virginia's King and Queen County.
He took a moment to vent his frustration against the ruling class. "I don't trust the government," said Worrell, a 54-year-old father of five who grew up in the county, a two-and-a-half hour drive south of Washington, DC. "All politicians do is fatten their pockets.”
Because of his distrust, Worrell does not plan to vote in Virginia's gubernatorial election on Tuesday, which is generally viewed as the first major opportunity to take the temperature of the electorate in the era of Donald Trump.
Virginia is considered a swing state, which means that neither Democrats nor Republicans have a clear majority. The state voted twice for both George W. Bush and Barack Obama. In last year's presidential election, Hillary Clinton carried Virginia by a 5 percent margin against Donald Trump.
In this election, the candidates are the Republican loyalist and lobbyist Ed Gillespie and the Democrat Ralph Northam, the current lieutenant governor. Worrell said he wouldn't give either one his vote because neither would bring real change.
'Not very intelligent'
Worrell considers Barack Obama the worst US president in history, saying he believes that Trump's predecessor had "socialist ideas." Though he originally supported Trump because "he had said some things I agree with," he has soured on the real estate mogul since he became president.
"He is a liar," Worrell said. "And you can't trust a liar." He believes that Trump is incapable of changing things, which he blames partly on Congress and partly on the president. Worrell laments that lawmakers can't make compromises anymore and that Trump cannot delegate and wants to do everything himself.
"He is not very intelligent," Worrell said. "You can see that the way he talks." Still, he added, Trump is a billionaire who ran a big company.
Making life worse
Worrell spends months away from home constructing sawmills for lumber companies across the United States. He said working people "don't get any relief from the government."
Though his business was good in the 1980s and 1990s, Worrell said, it went downhill at the beginning of the 2000s and has not recovered.
Worrell blames the government, not just in Washington, but also in Virginia, for making life not better, but worse for people.
A state divided
Worrell's general sentiment — a negative view of Trump coupled with a limited interest in Virginia's election or knowledge about its candidates — was shared broadly by half a dozen people in King and Queen County who recently offered their opinions on the state election and President Trump. King and Queen County is sometimes viewed as a swing county in a swing state.
Virginia is generally divided between its southern and more rural parts, which tend to vote Republican, and the area bordering the Washington metropolitan area, which leans Democratic. King and Queen County has flipped in recent presidential elections.
Though it is located in an otherwise traditionally Republican-voting region, the small county, which has a sizable African-American population, voted for Obama in his first election, but four years later went for his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, and last year voted overwhelmingly for Trump.
The Trump referendum?
Phyllis Scott, a 58-year old mail carrier and a Democrat, voted for Clinton last November. On Tuesday she will vote for the Democrat, Northam, even though she is not particularly excited about him or against his Republican opponent. When the conversation turned toward Trump, Scott was more outspoken.
"He is just trying to burn everything up that all the presidents before him built up," she said outside Bradley's Convenience Store, which, with its small restaurant inside and its gas station outside, serves as one of the county's major gathering points. She hopes that Northam, if elected, will act as a check on Trump.
No one here cares much about the state election at all, said Eric Phipps, a mechanic who was taking a break at Bradley's. Phipps, who is 38, said he would vote for Northam, but expressed no excitement for the Democratic candidate, who, like his Republican opponent, represents the party's traditional establishment.
Phipps is much more animated about the Trump presidency: He used an expletive and called the administration a "circus." He said he would love it if Trump were impeached and forced to leave the White House so long as Vice President Mike Pence, a conservative evangelical, did not automatically become Trump's successor. "I don't want to have a theocracy either," Phipps said.
Pining for Reagan
Evelyn Taylor, a 69-year-old Republican retiree, said she would vote for Gillespie on Tuesday. She is lukewarm at best in her support for her candidate. Taylor said Northam was "against gun rights," but would not go into specifics.
Like the others, she is no fan of Trump. "I don't think he has class," Taylor said. "We need to have a president we can be proud of," she added citing Ronald Reagan as the US's model chief executive.
The attitudes expressed by residents of King and Queen County reflect the general electoral mood in Virginia, said Stephen Farnsworth, who directs the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
"Both candidates have really struggled to be heard in the age of Trump," he said. "The campaign of this year is the polar opposite of four years ago, when the candidates for governor dominated the news in the state for months."
With turnout expected to be 20 percentage points below that of the presidential election, which is normal for an off-year vote in Virginia, the main focus for both parties is to make sure their base shows up, Farnsworth said.
The key challenge for Gillespie is to maintain a distance from Trump, a Republican who is deeply unpopular with large swaths of the electorate, without offending the party's grassroots supporters, whose votes he needs to get elected.
Stance on Trump
The race, which is too close to call, was comparatively civil until both candidates went negative during the home stretch. Northam has tried to characterize Gillespie as close to Trump, which seems like a stretch given that he is a traditional GOP insider and Trump appeals more to the party's fringes.
Gillespie attacked Northam as "soft on crime" and a supporter of sanctuary cities, or communities that make enforcing federal immigration laws a low priority — which also seems like a stretch: Virginia does not have any declared sanctuary cities.
In the end, Farnsworth said, the decisive factor could be outside the realm of Virginia politics.
"Issues don't matter much in this election," Farnsworth said, "as people will vote for or against the candidates for governor mainly based on how they feel about Trump."