Virginia Republicans will get the first opportunity to plot the future of their party after President TrumpDonald TrumpOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — Milley warns of 'Sputnik moment' for China WSJ publishes letter from Trump continuing to allege voter fraud in PA Oath Keeper who was at Capitol on Jan. 6 runs for New Jersey State Assembly MORE leaves the White House next year in a competitive gubernatorial contest that will be seen as an early indication of the nation’s shifting political winds.
The Republicans who run are likely to face an electorate furious over their loss in this year’s elections, steamed at a Democratic-controlled legislature that has advanced gun safety legislation and livid at outgoing Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who has ordered lockdowns in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Their anger, activists said, is going to drive the battle for the Republican nomination.
“There are a lot of pissed off, hostile Republicans who are upset about multiple things,” said John Massoud, a town councilor in Strasburg, Va., and a member of the state Republican Party’s executive committee. “The person who taps into that anger and comes up with the right positive solutions for how to take Virginia forward will do very well come the nomination season and come November next year.”
More broadly, the race will test Trump’s lasting influence over the party he led for four years, a grip he seemingly has no intent on surrendering. Whether or not he decides to step in and endorse a candidate, the contest will indicate whether Virginia Republicans are ready to move past Trump or eager for their standard-bearer to emulate his combative style.
“It will demonstrate whether Virginia Republicans will revert to the more traditional ideological elements of the party or gravitate towards a conservative outsider with more of a populist, anti-establishment, Trump-like message,” said Phil Cox, a longtime strategist who managed the last statewide race Republicans won. “The candidate who can marry both elements will be well-positioned in both the nomination and the general election.”
Two significant candidates have already entered the race. State Delegate Kirk Cox (R), a former Speaker of the House of Delegates, and state Sen. Amanda Chase (R) have launched campaigns. Both pitch themselves as ardent conservatives.
They are expected to be joined in the coming weeks by Pete Snyder, a venture capitalist who ran for lieutenant governor in 2013. Snyder is set to announce his intentions imminently, according to two sources with knowledge of his thinking, and he is likely to spend substantially on his own race.
He may not be the only candidate to self-fund. Glenn Youngkin, who stepped down as co-chief executive of the Carlyle Group earlier this year, is meeting with strategists and interviewing staff, according to one source with whom he met.
The race will be shaped in part by a decision set for this Saturday, when Virginia Republicans decide whether to nominate a candidate through a primary, which would attract hundreds of thousands of voters across the commonwealth, or through a convention, which is typically dominated by a smaller number of activists who skew more conservative.
Most Virginia Republicans believe the party will opt for a primary, which would aid the self-funding candidates. At a convention in 2013, pastor E.W. Jackson pulled off an upset in the race for lieutenant governor, in which Snyder placed second; Jackson lost to Northam in the November contest, attracting fewer votes than any other Republican on the statewide ticket.
If recent history is a guide, Republicans should be favored to win back the governorship a year after losing the presidency. In the last several decades, the party that loses the White House has won Virginia’s governorship in all but one case.
But that exception — in 2013, when Terry McAuliffe (D) beat Ken Cuccinelli (R) — illustrates an evolving state that has trended more toward Democrats in recent years. No Republican has won a statewide office in Virginia in a dozen years. Northam won more votes in 2017, 1.4 million, than any other governor in the state’s history, and he won by a wider margin than any Democrat has won since 1985.
President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden to meet House Dems before Europe trip: report 21 House Democrats call for removing IRS bank reporting proposal from spending bill Overnight Health Care — Presented by Altria — Vulnerable House Dems push drug pricing plan MORE beat Trump in Virginia by 10 points, the widest winning margin in a presidential contest there since George H.W. Bush thumped Michael Dukakis in 1988.
This year’s results hint at a conundrum ahead for the Republican candidates who will seek the nomination: Embracing Trump, the most popular figure among Virginia Republicans, may be necessary to win a nomination, but doing so could also alienate voters who are increasingly turning the state blue.
“President Trump was the great motivator this year. I have never seen so much enthusiasm among people for a candidate as I saw for Trump this year,” said Mark Cole, a Republican state delegate who represents Fredericksburg. “If that enthusiasm carries over into next year’s elections without him on the ballot, I believe Republicans will have a good year. His problem was that he also motivated Democrats to come out and vote against him.”
The roster of Democratic candidates is just as muddled as the GOP field. McAuliffe has filed paperwork that will allow him to raise money for a comeback bid, though he has not formally declared his candidacy. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) is running under a cloud of scandal after allegations made against him by several women. State Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D) and state Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy (D) have already entered the race, and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney (D) is said to be considering his own campaign.
The battle for the Democratic nomination will be fraught, pitting McAuliffe against candidates who are Black and more progressive.
In a state where political winds have tended to shift against an incumbent president’s party, next year’s race may be more of a referendum on Biden’s first 10 months in office than on his predecessor. But Trump still looms large, especially in Republican voters’ minds.
“With all the strong support he had, not just in Virginia but nationwide, he has laid the foundation for a political movement that could continue for years,” Cole said of Trump. “Whether or not he decides to lead that movement is entirely up to him.”
CORRECTION: Pete Snyder finished second in the final round of voting at the GOP convention for lieutenant governor in 2013. An earlier version of this story included incorrect information.