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Va. Republicans navigate Trumpism in 2021 governor's race


RICHMOND, Va. - Virginia Republicans, who haven't won a statewide race in more than a decade, see 2021 as their best chance in years to reverse their losing streak - but they will have to wrestle with Trumpism to do it.

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One of just two states (along with New Jersey) to pick a governor the year after the presidential election, Virginia has a habit of rebelling against the party in the White House. By Election Day 2021, President-elect Joe Biden will have been in power nearly a year - and Republicans are hoping the so-called "Virginia curse" will work in their favor as the state elects a governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. All 100 seats in the House of Delegates also will be on the ballot. 

"When a Democrat is in the White House, Virginia Republicans get bullish, because history shows that's when the Republicans have the best chance to take back the governor's mansion," said Richard Cullen, a former Republican state attorney general and former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia.

That sense of opportunity means an unusually large pack of Republicans are eyeing the Executive Mansion. And the sheer size of the potential field could complicate how the party contends with Trumpism, which is expected to remain the party's most animating and problematic force long after President Trump's term ends.

Two are officially in the race: state Sen. Amanda Chase of Chesterfield and Del. Kirk Cox of Colonial Heights, the former speaker of the House of Delegates. 

Five others are actively exploring bids: Northern Virginia businessman Pete Snyder, who is expected to formally announce soon; former Carlyle Group co-chief executive Glenn Youngkin; state Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr. of Augusta; Charles "Bill" Carrico, a retired state trooper and former state senator from Grayson County, in the state's far Southwest; and outgoing Rep. Denver Riggleman. 

Trump won Virginia's 2016 presidential primary with just under 35% of the vote, but lost the general election here by five points. This year, he lost the state by 10 points. And in between, Democrats flipped three congressional seats plus the state House and Senate in blue waves widely seen as rebukes to the Republican president. 

While toxic to swing voters in the suburbs, especially in populous Northern Virginia, Trump remains highly popular with the Republican base. That puts the Virginia GOP in a pickle as it chooses its nominee in June, say Republicans and Democrats alike.

"In order to win the [Republican] Party nomination, you've got to appeal to the Trumpian right - but in order to win the general, you can't lose Fairfax [County] by 36 points," said Jared Leopold, Democratic strategist for one of three Democrats officially running for governor, state Sen. Jennifer McClellan of Richmond. 

The other two Democrats formally in the race are Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy of Prince William. Former governor Terry McAuliffe, who defied the Virginia curse by winning in 2013 while fellow Democrat Barack Obama was in office, is widely expected to seek a second term. The current governor, Democrat Ralph Northam, is prohibited by the state constitution from seeking back-to-back terms.

Former Republican governor George Allen said the party can best navigate those tricky politics by pursuing "kitchen table" issues, such as education and jobs, that have appeal across the aisle. A softer style, he said, wouldn't hurt either.

"Most Republicans will not defend President Trump's manners, but they love what he's done on taxes, on energy, reasonable regulation, strong national defense, standing up to China and the judges he's nominated," Allen said. "Developers from New York City are not known for their hospitality. They're pushy and all that. . . . I think we need to recognize there's only one Donald Trump in this universe." 

Some Republicans openly worry about the candidate who draws the most comparisons to Trump's flamboyant style: Chase. They say that in a large field, she could emerge as the GOP nominee, alienating swing voters in the general election and dooming the party's chances up and down the ballot. 

Chase, a senator since 2016, has drawn rebukes from her own party leaders for cursing out a Capitol Police officer over a parking spot and claiming on Facebook that Virginia Democrats "hate white people." Chase strapped an assault-style weapon over her shoulder for a gun rights rally in July attended by "boogaloo boys," a far-right anti-government group pushing for a second civil war. (Chase said she didn't know who was in the crowd.) On Friday, she created a stir by posting side-by-side photos of herself and civil rights icon Rosa Parks on Facebook, with the message: "We never backed down."

"I know a lot of people say I'm Trump in heels, and I've embraced it," said Chase, who was a home-schooling mom when she got into politics and touts the criticism from fellow Republicans as proof that she's shaking up the establishment in both parties. "Republicans keep talking about how they want to win the suburbs. I am the suburbs. And suburban women are sometimes a little bit sassy."

Cox, a retired high school civics teacher and baseball coach who has served 30 years in the House, mostly tries to sidestep the polarizing national issues Chase plays up. He says his mantra - "practical solutions for everyday problems" - appeals to independents and Democrats as well as the blue-collar voters Trump brought in to the party.

"When you knock on a working-class family's door and you ask them what's on their mind, it' s not what the pundits on TV are saying," he said, adding that K-12 schools and more affordable higher education are more important to them.

Cox has tried to thread the needle when it comes to Trump. Where Chase has led "Stop the steal" rallies alleging, without evidence, voter fraud in Virginia, Cox has held off commenting on the presidential election results. He said he would wait until the electoral college votes in mid-December - an approach that has drawn criticism from Democrats, including Del. Marcus Simon, D-Fairfax, who tweeted that Cox and state party leadership have failed to push back on Chase's "nonsense."

Cox seemed to take pains to avoid using Trump's name in August, when he issued a statement confirming he was exploring a run but saying he would hold off any announcement so the party could focus on its efforts to "defeat Joe Biden."

While Chase has attacked Cox directly - slamming him, for example, for agreeing to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act - Cox has pushed back more obliquely.

"Part of the appeal of the president is he's authentic," he said. "I'm going to be Kirk Cox. . . . They [voters] are not interested in imitations right now."

Some Trump fans say Chase cannot win them over by mimicking his norm-shattering style.

"What I like about Donald Trump is my embassy's in Jerusalem, I've got 300 judges, I got a tax cut," said Matt Colt Hall, a Southwest Virginia native and political commentator for the conservative blog Bearing Drift. "There are people out there that can give the Trump policy without strapping an AR-15 across their chests in downtown Richmond." 

John Fredericks, a conservative radio host and Trump backer who was chairman of his Virginia campaign in 2016, says Chase is not the automatic heir to the Trump vote.

"Just because you jump up and down and flail your arms doesn't mean you're inheriting the Trump votes. That's what Corey Stewart did, running around with Confederate flags," he said, referring to the Trumpian Republican who challenged Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., in 2018 and lost by 16 points. "Trump expanded the party. Amanda shrinks the party."

But even Chase's critics think she has a good shot at the nomination. 

"She absolutely could get the nomination," said Cole Trower, who represents the Young Republican Federation of Virginia on the State Central Committee. "When you have several other candidates who are mainstream splitting the vote up, then the path to victory becomes easier for her." 

That anxiety was expected to spill over into the State Central Committee meeting Saturday, when members began meeting remotely at 10 a.m. to decide whether to nominate its slate of statewide candidates in a primary or a convention. The meeting will be streamed live on the party's Facebook page. 

Conventions, typically day-long events with multiple rounds of voting, are more likely to favor far-right candidates, because often, only the most hardcore party activists are willing to travel across the state to participate. 

But the politics of the convention-primary choice were scrambled this year. Chase, who might be expected to fare well at a convention, said she feared it would be rigged by party leaders out to undermine her, and vowed to run as an independent if the committee chose that method. 

Meanwhile, some Republicans who typically favor primaries but oppose Chase considered voting for a convention because they doubted that she could garner the required majority vote - 50 percent plus one. In a primary, she could win with a plurality.

"She's the favorite to be the nominee in a crowded primary. No question about it," Fredericks said, estimating she might have support from 30 percent to 35 percent of Republicans. "Amanda is the one candidate that has a base that will come out for her. The problem for Amanda is, the base also has a ceiling, and it's not 50 percent plus one."

Trower feared Chase's opposition to a convention might be a head fake. "You ever heard of the term reverse psychology?" he said. "Her supporters would definitely show up in a convention. They're going to show up no matter what."

Riggleman, who lost his nomination at a convention after he'd presided over a same-sex wedding, said a much broader and more representative slice of the electorate can participate in statewide primaries. 

"I don't think the big-tent party should turn into the carnival-tent party," said Riggleman, who is considering running as an independent. "The Republican Party just keeps spiraling. . . . If we double down on conventions, the Republican Party will eventually become a third party in Virginia."

Published : December 05, 2020

By : The Washington Post · Laura Vozzella · NATIONAL, POLITICS