Virginia GOP candidates for governor gear up for convention

Amanda Chase, Glenn Youngkin and Kirk Cox
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Virginia Republicans are gearing up for their party’s gubernatorial nominating convention on Saturday in a race that could signal how the party plans to navigate the post-Trump era.

Unlike their Democratic counterpart, the GOP nominee will be chosen by a record 53,000 delegates on Saturday. Republicans say the sheer number of delegates slated to participate in the convention reflects energy among the commonwealth’s GOP grassroots.

“It’s not always who can be the next Donald Trump, because you can’t replicate Donald Trump,” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist and former aide to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). “Who can best emulate some of the Trump attitude, appeal to his voters and be someone to win?”

The Republican field includes former private equity CEO Glenn Youngkin, entrepreneur Pete Snyder, state Sen. Amanda Chase, state Del. Kirk Cox, former think tank leader Peter Doran, retired Army Col. Sergio de la Peña and former Roanoke City, Va., Sheriff Octavia Johnson.

While there is no clear front-runner in the race, Youngkin, Snyder, Cox and Chase make up the race’s top tier. Youngkin and Snyder are leading the fundraising race in part due to loans they gave their campaigns this year. Meanwhile, Cox and Chase boast their own name recognition due to their status as state lawmakers.

Chase, who frequently refers to herself as “Trump in heels,” has received national attention for a slew of controversial remarks, including calling those in attendance at Trump’s Jan. 6 protest and subsequent attack on the Capitol “patriots” and saying the guilty verdict in last month’s trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin made her “sick.”

The other Republicans have proven to not be nearly as controversial as Chase, but still have tied themselves to the former president. Many of the candidates have called for more restrictive voting measures, a nod to Trump’s unfounded complaints over the legitimacy of his loss in last year’s presidential election.

A number of pro-Trump figures have endorsed candidates ahead of the convention. Most recently Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) threw his support behind Youngkin on Monday. Snyder is slated to appear with Trump’s former White House press secretary and current Arkansas gubernatorial candidate Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Wednesday in Arlington. Chase received the backing of Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn last month.

There is no sign that Trump himself will get involved in the contest in Virginia, a state he lost by roughly 10 points last year. Additionally, the former president did not play a large role in the 2017 governor’s race, only voicing support for GOP candidate Ed Gillespie in the days before the race. Trump went on to attack Gillespie after his loss, accusing him of not embracing the president enough on the campaign trail.

Republicans also argue the candidates are focused more on statewide issues, such as the reopening of schools, rolling back gun control restrictions and calling for critical race theory to be removed from education curriculums.

But Democrats in the commonwealth are working hard to tie the GOP candidates to the former president. On Tuesday, the Virginia Democratic Party sent out a memo titled “Virginia Republicans Have One Message: Complete Support for Donald Trump’s Extremism.”

“Regardless of which out-of-touch Republican emerges from this weekend’s convention, Donald Trump’s dangerous extremism will be on the ballot this November,” Virginia Democratic Party spokesman Manuel Bonder told The Hill.

But this time around, Republicans say the Trump factor has already been overtaken by a chaotic convention process.

The Virginia GOP made the decision in March to hold what it called a “disassembled convention” to pick nominees for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general, with its leadership voting to establish 37 polling locations across the state to comply with coronavirus safety measures. Many Republicans bemoaned the divide in the party over whether to have a primary or a convention, fearing it would overshadow the Republican candidates.

Saturday’s convention will utilize the ranked-choice voting system, meaning delegates will rank the candidates from their top choice to their last choice. The ballot count will begin on Sunday and will be repeated until the final candidate with the most votes is chosen. Some Republicans say the sheer number of delegates participating is evidence of the excitement surrounding the race.

“I think that shows folks are ultra-excited, ready to go and getting involved very close to the grassroots level,” said John March, the communications director at the Republican Party of Virginia.

But not all Republicans are convinced, arguing a convention process will not help the party going forward.

“I think that already sort of is the death knell for this election,” said former Virginia Rep. Denver Riggleman (R).

Opponents of the convention process argue that it limits voters who did not register to become delegates from taking part in the nomination process. While the number of registered delegates is high, it falls far below the 378,000 voters who took part in Virginia’s 2017 GOP gubernatorial primary.

Riggleman himself lost his seat in Virginia’s 5th Congressional District after local GOP leaders decided to have a nominating convention instead of a primary.

“When you have crazy in a statewide [race], that’s not just based on a specific district like mine in the 5th where they had to limit the vote so much to beat me, you’re to a point of insanity when you’re saying that less than 1 percent of the electorate participating in a convention or nominating process is deemed a success,” Riggleman said.

“I guess you could say me getting a D-minus on my math exam was a success because it wasn’t an F,” he added.

Whoever wins the convention will have an uphill climb against the Democrat in the general election. Republicans point to the history the commonwealth has of voting for the opposite party after a presidential election, but Democrats say the commonwealth has trended blue in recent years. Congressional Democratic candidates ousted a number of Virginia Republican incumbents in 2018. On top of that, 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.

Democrats and some Republicans also point to the name recognition and fundraising force behind the Democratic front-runner, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe. McAuliffe had a cash-on-hand total of $8.5 million by the end of March of this year, leading all of the other candidates in the race. Polls also show him leading the Democratic primary field by double-digits.

“I think it’s going to be McAuliffe,” Riggleman said. “I don’t think the Democrats are stupid. That’s why they had a primary.”

Tags Denver Riggleman Donald Trump Donald Trump Eric Cantor Sarah Huckabee sarah huckabee sanders Ted Cruz

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