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.