Trump Scrambles Open Race for Virginia Governor

The Republican primary and general election next year will come just months after the new president is inaugurated.

Ed Gillespie, accompanied by his wife, Cathy, concedes defeat in the Virginia Senate race in 2014
AP Photo/Cliff Owen
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Zach C. Cohen
Nov. 22, 2016, 8 p.m.

Vir­gin­ia is about to be­come the cen­ter of the polit­ic­al uni­verse, act­ing as a test of Pres­id­ent-elect Trump’s polit­ic­al ap­peal less than a year after he enters the White House.

Both parties are grap­pling with an en­tirely new race next year to re­place Demo­crat­ic Gov. Terry McAul­iffe, who is term-lim­ited. Re­pub­lic­ans’ nom­in­at­ing pro­cess has shif­ted be­fore it even really had be­gun, both in terms of at­mo­spher­ics and polit­ic­al mach­in­a­tions.

If his­tory is any guide, Demo­crats have a sil­ver lin­ing in Hil­lary Clin­ton car­ry­ing the state by 5 points even as she lost oth­er swing states and the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion.

“Be­cause both parties look to Vir­gin­ia as one of those ba­ro­met­ers for how the pres­id­ent is do­ing, the Vir­gin­ia gov­ernor’s race tends to be a na­tion­al­ized polit­ic­al event,” said Steph­en Farns­worth, a polit­ic­al sci­ence pro­fess­or at the Uni­versity of Mary Wash­ing­ton.

Four Re­pub­lic­ans have de­clared for the state’s top of­fice. Ed Gillespie, a former Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee chair­man and 2014 Sen­ate nom­in­ee, will face, among oth­ers, Corey Stew­art, the bom­bast­ic Prince Wil­li­am County Board of Su­per­visors chair­man who served as Trump’s Vir­gin­ia chair­man un­til he was fired from the cam­paign in Oc­to­ber for protest­ing the RNC.

Stew­art said in an in­ter­view Monday that Trump’s win was “like rock­et fuel for my cam­paign,” help­ing his grass­roots or­gan­iz­ing and his fun­drais­ing from in and out of state. Since the elec­tion, Stew­art has doubled down on re­mind­ing voters of Gillespie’s tep­id sup­port for the Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee, not­ing Gillespie cam­paigned only with Vice Pres­id­ent-elect Mike Pence. Gillespie ap­peared with Pence twice, in­clud­ing in North­ern Vir­gin­ia three days be­fore the elec­tion.

“My race is just so clas­sic­ally defined,” Stew­art said. “It’s really between Ed Gillespie and me, and Gillespie’s a poster child for the es­tab­lish­ment.”

The two oth­er can­did­ates in the Re­pub­lic­an primary, Rep. Robert Wittman and state Sen. Frank Wag­n­er, have sim­il­arly em­braced Trump. In his kick­off speech Nov. 9, Wag­n­er prom­ised to help “make Vir­gin­ia great again!”

Wittman, however, who was just elec­ted to his fifth full term rep­res­ent­ing an east­ern dis­trict that stretches from the D.C. ex­urbs to Hamp­ton Roads, is con­sid­er­ing drop­ping out of the race. He said on D.C.’s NPR af­fil­i­ate that he may in­stead seek a sub­com­mit­tee chair­man­ship in Con­gress. Wag­n­er and a spokes­man for Wittman did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

Among Gillespie’s ap­par­ent “es­tab­lish­ment” back­ers is Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walk­er, the new chair­man of the Re­pub­lic­an Gov­ernors As­so­ci­ation. In an in­ter­view at the RGA’s an­nu­al con­fer­ence in Or­lando last week, Walk­er praised Gillespie as “a phe­nom­en­al can­did­ate who came re­mark­ably close just two years ago to win­ning the U.S. Sen­ate race without any­body even think­ing it was on the radar.”

The RGA won’t en­dorse, but Gillespie—and not Stew­art—at­ten­ded Novem­ber’s con­fab, where he mingled with cur­rent ex­ec­ut­ives, donors, and party strategists. Walk­er also fun­draised for Gillespie in Septem­ber.

“I’ve helped people [in Re­pub­lic­an gubernat­ori­al primar­ies] be­fore in­di­vidu­ally; I have no prob­lem do­ing that,” Walk­er said. “As an or­gan­iz­a­tion we don’t, be­cause our goal is, no mat­ter who wins the primary, we’re go­ing to be pre­pared to help them out.”

Gillespie de­clined an in­ter­view with Na­tion­al Journ­al when ap­proached at the event, dir­ect­ing ques­tions to his staff. His com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or, Matt Mor­an, also de­clined to com­ment, say­ing, “We’re not go­ing to do a lot of spec­u­lat­ing on the state of the race.”

Party lead­ers in Au­gust op­ted for a statewide primary rather than the ori­gin­ally planned con­ven­tion. Vir­gin­ia Re­pub­lic­an Party Chair­man John Whit­beck said Tues­day there was “no in­dic­a­tion” the party would switch back to a con­ven­tion.

Whit­beck said draw­ing a wider elect­or­ate, in­clud­ing mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­ans and in­de­pend­ents, bet­ter pre­pares the even­tu­al nom­in­ee. He had pre­vi­ously favored the con­ven­tion as a way of sav­ing re­sources for the gen­er­al elec­tion.

“They’re run­ning a cam­paign that re­quires get­ting their name ID up,” Whit­beck said, “and it al­ways helps to blanket the com­mon­wealth with your mail, your TV, and your ground game.”

Gillespie starts the post-2016 peri­od of the race with a re­por­ted cash ad­vant­age, re­port­ing just more than $1 mil­lion on hand in his Let’s Grow, Vir­gin­ia! PAC as of Sept. 30. Stew­art re­por­ted a quarter of that in his reelec­tion ac­count on June 30, and in an in­ter­view Monday he de­clined to up­date that fig­ure.

“He will def­in­itely have more money,” Stew­art said of Gillespie, “and he will try to buy this elec­tion.”

Vir­gin­ia, a no­tori­ously swingy com­mon­wealth, has typ­ic­ally se­lec­ted a gov­ernor of the op­pos­ite party to the one oc­cupy­ing the White House. That’s good news for Lt. Gov. Ral­ph Northam, the likely Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee. The only ex­cep­tion from the last 40 years is 2013, when McAul­iffe de­feated then-state At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Ken Cuc­cinelli.

“If tra­di­tion is any line, all of a sud­den in­stead of the wind at your back, it’s prob­ably go­ing to be blow­ing a little bit in your face if you’re Re­pub­lic­an,” said former Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Tom Dav­is of Vir­gin­ia.

Be­fore the elec­tion, Demo­crats tele­graphed plans to high­light each of the Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates’ sup­port for Trump, re­gard­less of de­gree. But with Trump set to enter the White House, Demo­crat­ic Gov­ernors As­so­ci­ation spokes­man Jared Leo­pold said days after the elec­tion that “we need to as­sess that” strategy.

Leo­pold said Tues­day that “it will be in­cum­bent on the four Re­pub­lic­ans run­ning to an­swer where they stand on the dif­fer­ent policy pro­pos­als that Pres­id­ent Trump rolls out.”

Demo­crats will have to work to turn out their voters in the off-year elec­tion, which will not co­in­cide with what would have been a high-pro­file spe­cial elec­tion to re­place Sen. Tim Kaine, Clin­ton’s run­ning mate.

Both sides point to North­ern Vir­gin­ia as be­ing key to a vic­tory. The D.C. sub­urbs are the fast­est-grow­ing part of the state and a chief reas­on for Demo­crats’ vic­tor­ies statewide. It’s in­cum­bent upon Re­pub­lic­ans to cut in­to that ad­vant­age while main­tain­ing their out­reach in more con­ser­vat­ive areas around Rich­mond, Vir­gin­ia Beach, and the south­w­est.

“How you win this state hasn’t changed over the years. … It’s just the mar­gins are dif­fer­ent,” said Chris La­Civ­ita, a Vir­gin­ia-based Re­pub­lic­an polit­ic­al con­sult­ant.

Stew­art’s mes­saging since the elec­tion could pose prob­lems for his out­reach in that area, which is more urb­an, mul­ti­cul­tur­al, and af­flu­ent than the rest of the com­mon­wealth. Marco Ru­bio beat Trump in the Wash­ing­ton sub­urbs dur­ing their primary con­test in June, even as the now-pres­id­ent-elect car­ried the state. The same area lif­ted Clin­ton over Trump in a nar­row gen­er­al-elec­tion con­test.

Stew­art’s policies are also in­con­gru­ous to the re­gion. He is a fre­quent crit­ic of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s en­force­ment of il­leg­al im­mig­ra­tion and has prom­ised “sig­ni­fic­ant activ­ity” on un­doc­u­mented res­id­ents of his ex­urb­an county “in the next couple of weeks,” adding, “I want to hunt them down.”

Stew­art has re­peatedly railed against ca­reer politi­cians in his bid to win his own polit­ic­al of­fice. However, Dav­is said, Stew­art’s home base of north­ern Vir­gin­ia has “got a ton of fed­er­al em­ploy­ees and fed­er­al con­tract­ors, so the an­ti­gov­ern­ment rhet­or­ic doesn’t really cut it up here when it’s the main­stay of the eco­nomy.”

Cor­rec­tion: Ed Gillespie cam­paigned with Vice Pres­id­ent-elect Mike Pence twice, not once as the story ori­gin­ally stated.

Hillary Clinton carried Virginia in the 2016 presidential election with 49.75% of the vote to 44.43% for Donald Trump.

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