Trump's policies to face early test at the ballot box

Trump on travel ban: Call it what you want
Trump on travel ban: Call it what you want

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  • In Virginia, Republicans and Democrats are using Trump's first few weeks in office to distinguish themselves
  • Trump won last year's Virginia Republican primary, but lost the state in the general election

(CNN)President Donald Trump won't have to face voters for several more years, but his policies will be on the ballot in just a few months.

Candidates for Virginia governor must pass through a rigorous primary in early June before entering the general election. Already, both Republicans and Democrats are using Trump's first few weeks in office to distinguish themselves against their primary opponents.
There are three candidates on the Republican side. Two -- Corey Stewart and Denver Riggleman -- are hoping to ride Trump's anti-establishment wave to their party's nomination and eventually the governor's mansion. The third candidate, former George W. Bush aide Ed Gillespie, embodies the GOP establishment and is seeking to consolidate the many factions of the state party to give Republicans their first statewide win since 2009.
    The GOP candidates have vastly different backgrounds in the state. Stewart is the chair of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors and has previously run for statewide office. Riggleman is a businessman who is virtually unknown in Virginia. Gillespie is fresh off a narrow loss to popular Democratic Sen. Mark Warner in 2014 and is running a solid, risk-averse campaign.
    He could benefit from the potential of Riggleman and Stewart splitting the vote of Trump supporters. But the more Trump continues to make headlines, the more Gillespie has to respond, and the more opportunities that Stewart in particular has to distinguish himself as the candidate most aligned with the President.
    It is a position that may play well in the primary, but could be dangerous in a general election. Trump won last year's Virginia Republican primary, but lost the state in the general election.
    The best example of the dicey situation Gillespie finds himself in came this weekend during the rocky rollout of Trump's executive order temporarily suspending the refugee program and banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries.
    While Virginia Democrats, like the current Gov. Terry McAuliffe, rushed to Dulles Airport to lend a hand to those being detained by Customs and Border Patrol, Stewart released a fiery statement supporting Trump's policy.
    "The Trump administration executive order on refugees is reasonable and necessary," said Stewart. "It is a temporary inconvenience to fewer than 200 people a day. It is what is minimally required to prevent terrorists, disguised as refugees, from entering the country."
    Gillespie initially avoided reporters' query on the topic before releasing a short statement offering tepid support for the concept while criticizing the media's coverage of the chaos on the first few days of its implementation.
    "When you factor out all the misinformation and media hysteria, it's clear that a temporary pause on refugee settlements is a rational step to secure our homeland and keep Americans safe," Gillespie said.
    But as Stewart attempts to capitalize on the Trump phenomenon, Gillespie is finding ways to score his own points with the conservative base of the party without alienating moderate voters that will ultimately decide the election.
    In the days leading up to the anti-abortion March for Life last week, Stewart hammered Gillespie's stance on the issue and challenged Gillespie to join him at the event. As Stewart spent the day tweeting from the march and describing Gillespie as "Abortion Ed," the veteran Washington hand had a plan of his own.
    Minutes after Stewart tweeted "Vice President Pence just drove by at March for Life!" Gillespie tweeted from the march as well, posting a picture of him shaking hands with the vice president immediately after his speech.
    If the early days of this potentially rough and tumble primary are any indication, the next few months could prove to be less about balancing Virginia's budget and more about the current commander in chief. That's an unpredictable prospect that could pose problems for all the candidates running.