Trump the X-factor in Virginia governor race
Former President Trump is already deeply involved in the 2022 midterm elections, headlining fundraisers and backing primary challengers, but he has yet to weigh in on one of November’s few races: the vote for Virginia’s next governor.
While a number of the GOP candidates in the field have embraced the former president and his policies, Virginia has been trending blue in recent years, making Trump’s potential presence — or absence — the contest’s key X-factor.
“Even though this election nationally is likely to be seen as the first election of 2022, I think it’s doubtful that Trump would get involved in Virginia, and if he did, it would be a negative, not a positive” for Republicans, said veteran Virginia political analyst Bob Holsworth.
GOP state and federal lawmakers from Virginia experienced critical losses during Trump’s tenure.
Democratic Virginia Reps. Elaine Luria, Abigail Spanberger and Jennifer Wexton all ousted Republican incumbents in 2018, contributing to the Democratic takeover in the House.
The party also won control of the Virginia General Assembly in 2019, giving the Democrats total control of the commonwealth’s government for the first time since 1994.
Trump lost Virginia to President Biden by roughly 10 points in November after losing it to former Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by roughly 5 points four years earlier.
Some observers believe, however, that while Trump will avoid getting involved in the GOP’s 2021 nominating convention, he will ultimately end up endorsing in the general election.
“I think he’s going to make a difference,” said talk show host John Fredericks, who served as Trump’s 2016 and 2020 Virginia campaign chairman. “He’s got to rally the base.”
Trump’s team did not respond to The Hill’s request for comment, but adviser Jason Miller told The Associated Press last month that it was “too early to tell” what kind of role the former president would play in the race.
In 2017, Republicans lost their second straight bid for the Virginia governor’s mansion when Democrat Ralph Northam defeated Ed Gillespie, who supported many of Trump’s policies, by nearly 10 points.
Trump never campaigned directly with Gillespie but voiced support for him on Twitter in the run-up to the vote. The then-president attacked Gillespie after his loss, accusing him of not embracing Trump enough on the campaign trail.
Four years later, many of the candidates running in Virginia’s Republican primary have thrown their arms around Trump and his policies.
Virginia state Sen. Amanda Chase, who led a poll of the GOP field last month, often describes herself as “Trump in heels” and was censured by the state Senate for her attendance at the Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington and her praise for the rioters who stormed the Capitol that day.
Former hedge fund investor Glenn Youngkin has also echoed Trump’s skepticism about the 2020 election results, including establishing an “Election Integrity Task Force.”
And businessman Pete Snyder has touted his endorsement from Trump’s former White House press secretary and Arkansas gubernatorial candidate Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who herself has received Trump’s endorsement.
Former Virginia state House Speaker Kirk Cox (R), meanwhile, has steered clear of talking about Trump on the campaign trail and did not say in an interview with the AP whether he would like to see the former president stump on his behalf.
“I would like to see everyone turn and focus on Virginia and Virginians,” Cox said.
Former Virginia Rep. Denver Riggleman, a vocal Trump critic who lost his GOP primary last year, told The Hill that whether the eventual Republican nominee accepts an endorsement from Trump could depend on their campaign’s financial situation.
“The issue that you have for these individuals who want to stay in the party apparatus is they might feel pressure to take that endorsement based on where their money might come from,” Riggleman said.
“If they make the kiss-the-ring pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago and they want to leverage some of those monies that might go into a gubernatorial contest in 2021, they might accept an endorsement for financial backing,” he added. “It’s completely transactional with Trump.”
Others argue that Trump’s support would not be enough to outpace the Democratic momentum coming from the suburbs of Washington, D.C.
“The worst thing for the Republican Party would be to have him mobilize the Democrats in Northern Virginia,” Holsworth said. “[Republicans] don’t exist anymore as an organized forced in Northern Virginia.”
“The Democrats would want nothing more than a heavy Trump presence in this election,” he added.
Indeed, the party is already at working trying to tie the former president to the GOP contenders in the race.
Four of the Democratic gubernatorial candidates — former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, former Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, state Sen. Jennifer McClellan and Del. Lee Carter — signed a joint statement on Thursday condemning their Republican counterparts for aligning themselves with Trump.
“The entire Republican field,” the statement read, has taken its “complete embrace of Donald Trump a step beyond the far right extremism that has become the norm in the Virginia GOP.”
Strategists point out that it’s too early to say for sure what kind of role Trump will play ahead of Election Day, which is seven months away.
“Is it something Democrats would use in Fairfax County? Absolutely,” said Doug Heye, former deputy chief of staff to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). “But also, what are the dynamics in the campaign at that point in October and November, and is Trump really leading a leading part of that conversation? I don’t think we know.”