President Donald Trump injected himself into Virginia's governor's race late Thursday, tweeting an endorsement of Republican Ed Gillespie and accusing the Democratic contender of supporting violent gangs.
"Ralph Northam,who is running for Governor of Virginia, is fighting for the violent MS-13 killer gangs & sanctuary cities. Vote Ed Gillespie!" Trump tweeted to his 40 million followers at 9:58 p.m.
The tweet roils a race where most public polls have consistently shown Northam with a lead over Gillespie. A Washington Post-Schar School poll released Thursday showed Northam with a 13-point edge, while nearly six in 10 voters disapproved of Trump.
While Trump's tweet may excite his supporters in Virginia, the president's decision to wade into the race for governor poses risks for Gillespie. Trump remains deeply unpopular in Virginia, the only Southern state won by Hillary Clinton last fall.
Northam, the state's sitting lieutenant governor who has called the Trump a "narcissistic maniac," responded to Trump's tweet with his own tweet linking to a donation page.
Gillespie has struggled throughout the race to figure out how to run as a Republican in the Trump era, trying to simultaneously appeal to Trump voters without alienating moderate Republicans and independents. He remained silent about Trump's tweet as of 11:15 p.m. - unusual for a candidate endorsed by the president. Spokesmen for Gillespie and Trump did not immediately respond to request for comment.
Virginia is holding one of only two gubernatorial contests in November; the other in New Jersey is not considered competitive. The governor's race, to succeed Gov. Terry McAuliffe, D, is widely seen as a hint of what's to come in next year's mid-terms.
Gillespie, a longtime GOP operative and establishment figure who worked as a White House aide to former President George W. Bush, nearly lost the Republican nomination in June to Corey Stewart, who fashioned himself in the Trump mold. Quickly afterward, White House political advisors urged the Gillespie campaign to hire some of Trump's strategists and go hard after Trump voters during the general election.
For most of the campaign, though, the contest for Virginia governor had been applauded by observers for its relative civility.
But in late September, Gillespie rolled out four TV ads and mailings that sought to tie Northam to the MS-13 gangs - a claim that has been labeled "misleading" by the non-partisan Politifact and racist by immigration advocates.
It refers to a tiebreaking vote cast in January by Northam against a bill to ban sanctuary cities in Virginia. It was a pre-emptive measure: Virginia does not have sanctuary cities, a fact that Gillespie has acknowledged.
But the ads say that Northam's actions allowed "dangerous illegal criminals back on the street."
Trump's tweet mirrors the same line of attack.
Democrats responded to Trump's endorsement with condemnation.
"They both want to cut funding to education, roll back healthcare, and divide Virginians for political gains," said David Turner, a spokesman for Northam. "Looks like Ed Gillespie's ads are reaching his target audience--Donald Trump."
The Democratic Governors Association said the endorsement should come as no surprise.
"The facts are clear: Ed Gillespie will not stand up to Donald Trump on policies that harm Virginians," said Jared Leopold, a spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association. "Now that Gillespie has Trump's official endorsement, we look forward to seeing them proudly campaign together this month."
It's unclear if Trump will campaign for Gillespie, who has said he would welcome the president's help. Trump campaigned in Virginia at least 10 times during his presidential campaign, and has business connections in the commonwealth with a golf course and winery branded with his name.
The Washington Post's Jenna Johnson contributed to this report.