By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A bitterly fought governor's race in Virginia leads a slate of state and local elections on Tuesday that offer an early test of President Donald Trump's political influence and possible strategies for both parties in next year's midterm elections.
New Jersey voters also will pick a new governor to replace outgoing Republican Chris Christie. Several big cities will select mayors and conservative Utah will hold a special election to replace U.S. Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Republican who stepped down before his term ended.
The marquee contest is in Virginia, where polls show Democrat Ralph Northam has a slight edge over Republican Ed Gillespie in a nasty governor's race that will offer clues about the country's political mood.
Gillespie, a Washington lobbyist and former Republican National Committee chairman, has kept his distance from Trump but embraced the president's combative campaign style with hard-edged ads hitting Northam on divisive issues such as immigration, gang crime and Confederate statues.
The ads put Northam, the state's lieutenant governor, on the defensive and helped Gillespie gain ground in opinion polls in recent weeks in Virginia, where Democrat Hillary Clinton beat Trump by 5 percentage points last year.
A Gillespie win would be the latest in a series of setbacks for Democrats, who suffered losses in four contested congressional special elections earlier this year despite grassroots liberal enthusiasm for resisting Trump.
ANOTHER SETBACK FOR DEMOCRATS?
Democrats fear it would also give Republicans a green light to exploit similar divisive cultural issues across the country next year, when all 435 House seats and 33 of the Senate's 100 seats will be up for election. Republicans currently control both chambers.
"Gillespie's ads played on every fear and dark impulse, and if we lose we are going to see a lot more of that," Democratic strategist Dane Strother said.
Gillespie rejected that characterization and said he was gaining ground against Northam because of his substantive policies and plans to bolster Virginia's economy. Trump, who endorsed Gillespie but never campaigned for him, backed that view on Monday.
"The state of Virginia economy, under Democrat rule, has been terrible. If you vote Ed Gillespie tomorrow, it will come roaring back!" he said on Twitter.
In response, Northam tweeted that voting was "the best way to refute Trump's lies." The Virginia economy had an unemployment rate of 3.7 percent in September, better than all but 13 states and below the national rate of just over 4 percent.
Gillespie's campaign has blasted an ad aired by an outside group supporting Northam, quickly taken down, that showed a white man in a pickup truck with a Confederate flag and a Gillespie sticker chasing down minority children.
"The momentum is clearly on our side," Gillespie told Fox News on Monday.
In the governor's race in Democratic-leaning New Jersey, Democrat Phil Murphy, a former investment banker and U.S. ambassador to Germany, has a comfortable lead in polls over Republican Kim Guadagno, the state's lieutenant governor, who has been hampered by her association with the unpopular Christie.
In local races, Democratic Mayors Bill de Blasio in New York and Marty Walsh in Boston are expected to cruise to re-election, while Detroit, Atlanta, Charlotte, North Carolina, and Seattle also will pick mayors.
In Utah, Republican John Curtis, a strong Trump supporter, is a heavy favorite to fill the congressional seat left vacant by Chaffetz.
(Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Caren Bohan and Peter Cooney)