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Virginia Republicans’ messy, Trumpy race to pick a nominee for governor

The Republicans running for governor in Virginia signal a lot about the future of the GOP.

State Sen. Amanda Chase, seen here at a 2020 open-carry protest in Virginia, is one of the most explicitly pro-Trump candidates now running to be Republicans’ gubernatorial nominee in Virginia.
Eze Amos/Getty Images
Caroline Houck is senior editor of news at Vox, where she oversees the daily flagship newsletter and helps direct news coverage.

Update, May 10: Businessman Glenn Youngkin has won the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

GALAX, Virginia — Republican gubernatorial candidate Kirk Cox was several minutes into a wonky election security answer at a diner when January 6 came up again.

Did President Joe Biden win the election? Cox avoided directly answering the question at this recent event, though he had previously acknowledged that reality, the one GOP frontrunner willing to do so.

Instead, he refocused on proposals like voter ID requirements, which are popular with lots of voters. But now Lin, a Trump supporter who had posed the Biden question, had another one. She wanted to know whether he agreed with the Virginia Senate censuring one of its members, Amanda Chase, after she called the people who stormed the US Capitol that day in January “patriots.”

Did Cox support the “freedom of speech” of Chase, now one of Cox’s competitors for the Republican nomination?

“I’m very much for freedom of speech,” Cox answered.

“So you were against [the censure vote]?” asked Lin, who supports Chase in the race. “I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but I need a ‘yes’ or a ‘no.’”

This narrow line on the 2020 election and cancel culture is one Republicans have had to dance along for months in courting voters before Saturday’s Virginia GOP gubernatorial convention.

The GOP has had a tough go of it statewide in the past few years in Virginia, with demographic changes helping push the state to become reliably Democratic. The party’s response — running further and further to the right — has only exacerbated the problem. But Virginia might not be lost to the right kind of Republican. At least not yet.

Republicans will choose their nominee in an “unassembled convention”; nearly 54,000 Republicans who successfully applied to be a delegate will be able to cast ranked-choice ballots at 39 drive-up locations around Virginia. It’s a process that has had more than a few bumps along the way, including Chase alleging the party chose a convention over a primary to prevent her from becoming the nominee. It could also take several days to know the results — candidates have already sown doubt about the race.

“It’s going to make the Iowa caucuses look like a well-oiled machine,” a Democratic operative said, with a touch of hopeful glee.

The candidates represent a few ways the GOP could go in Virginia

Virginia last chose a Republican in a statewide election in 2009. Since then, the GOP has run candidates that its own insiders say don’t appeal to the state’s growing suburban population. They’re going to have to make inroads back into those communities to have a hope of winning, says Miles Coleman, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the Center for Politics.

“I always look at, in the 2016 primaries, places where candidates like John Kasich and Marco Rubio did well against Trump: Those are the areas that have moved more toward the Democrats since — places like Loudoun County, Hanover County, Chesterfield County,” Coleman said. “Maybe those voters are still open to the right type of Republican after voting for Hillary [Clinton] and Biden.”

But can they do that while turning out the 44 percent of the state that went for Trump?

The mix of contenders has been revealing.

  • Chase, the self-described “Trump in heels,” has dominated headlines in national media, saying things like the Derek Chauvin verdict made her “sick” because she worried about how cops would feel about it. And she’s popular with the base, at least according to a February poll and a more recent one conducted by Democrats.
  • Businessman and former lieutenant governor hopeful Pete Snyder is nearly as Trumpy, railing against the “woke” liberal establishment and highlighting endorsements from figures like Ken Cuccinelli and Sheriff David Clarke.
  • Meanwhile, newcomer and former private equity group executive Glenn Youngkin has surged to the top of some recent straw polls by running a well-funded campaign that ticks all the conservative culture war boxes but also talks about appealing to “Trump Republicans, libertarians, and Democrats” to win in November.
  • Cox, a delegate in the Virginia House and formerly the body’s speaker, remains the establishment favorite. He touts his know-how on implementing conservative policies, telling Vox, “it’s very important to have the experience to know how to run the state and to make good decisions.”

But regardless of how candidates are positioning themselves, there are certain issues that keep coming up on the trail: support for law enforcement, the eradication of “critical race theory” from schools, and election integrity, to name a few.

And for some voters, like Heather, who attended Cox’s event in Galax, the last on that list is most important — or, more specifically, it’s the question of whether Joe Biden won the 2020 election that matters most.

“That’s a huge one,” she said. “That’s first and foremost for this election or any election.”

Virginia Republicans want to stay competitive — and keep conservatives on board

The future of the GOP after Trump is an open question. And barring disputes like the one playing out between US Rep. Liz Cheney and the bulk of the House GOP right now, Virginia might be the best glimpse we get before the 2022 midterms.

Here’s what it looks like: There are seven candidates running for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, with four in real contention (Youngkin, Chase, Cox, and Snyder). All of them tout their traditional conservative bona fides — being pro-Second Amendment, anti-abortion, pro-business, and the like. Many of them rail against Covid-related closures, praising Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for keeping schools and businesses open throughout the pandemic.

“All across Virginia on day one, we are going to get every single school open — five days a week, every single week, with a real, live, breathing teacher in every classroom,” Snyder told a crowd at a brewery in Wytheville last weekend. “And folks, getting the schools open is only the beginning. We need to break the backs of this special interest monopoly of the teachers’ unions and bring real change to our schools.”

Given the country’s rate of vaccination, decreased community spread, and reopening, those pandemic issues might not be as relevant come November — or in 2022 and beyond. Trump, though, still will be.

At Snyder’s event, an emcee opened the afternoon by asking, “How many of you wish Donald Trump was president right now?” and a one-time Trump operator told the crowd they had to get to work to “defeat the socialists,” who “might even be worse than socialists, they’re bordering on communists.”

Youngkin, for his part, makes sure to note in his stump speech that he’s won praise from Trump, but he was also willing to criticize the former president’s tone as “a bit harsh” at a campaign event in northern Virginia.

Loyalty to Trump isn’t the key thing, argues Peter Doran, a former think tank CEO and one of the other three candidates recognized by the state party. (The others are former Roanoke Sheriff Octavia Johnson and retired Army Col. Sergio de la Peña.)

“Most Virginia Republicans are painted as these big hard-right, hard-conservative voters who only care about Donald Trump. That’s not true,” Doran said. “They care about their job. They care about what’s happening to their kids in this past year, and their education. And they care very deeply about the Republican Party’s failure to win over the past decade.”

Wilma, a mother of four and delegate in the convention, agreed, saying the GOP’s future relies on getting young people to understand conservative values like small government, constitutional rights, and concern about the deficit.

“My kids all look at the stimulus — it might be nice to get that money, that cash,” she said. “But eventually they know in the long run, they’re the generation that’s going to have to pay it back.”

The culture wars have consumed the GOP

Still, it’s no longer enough to tick the “fiscal conservative,” “Christian,” “gun owner,” and “anti-abortion” boxes. There are new ones on the list — keywords of the culture war issues the former president helped animate.

Take “critical race theory,” which Chase says is part of the reason she decided to homeschool her children.

As Vox’s Fabiola Cineas explained, “critical race theory is a framework for grappling with racial power and white supremacy in America.” But it’s also become a catch-all term for what the Trump administration thought was an effort to “indoctrinate” American students and workers with “divisive and harmful sex- and race-based ideologies”:

“They’ve lumped everything together: critical race theory, the 1619 project, whiteness studies, talking about white privilege,” Kimberlé Crenshaw, a founding critical race theorist and UCLA and Columbia University law professor, told Vox. “What they have in common is they are discourses that refuse to participate in the lie that America has triumphantly overcome its racist history, that everything is behind us. None of these projects accept that it’s all behind us.”

It’s not just Chase using the term frequently: Almost all the candidates make sure to highlight their opposition to it; six have signed a pledge opposing critical race theory. As journalist Dave Weigel pointed out on Twitter, Youngkin went so far as to upload multiple video clips of him criticizing it.

Trump’s impact, though, is perhaps most evident in the obsession with election security.

On one hand, Amanda Chase’s stance on the 2020 election sets her apart from the rest of the party — so much so that she, her supporters, and some outsiders claim the state party chose a convention rather than a primary to mitigate the risk of her ending up at the top of their ticket.

Last month, in an interview with the AP, Chase even questioned whether Biden won Virginia. (He carried it by 10 percentage points, as official election results show.)

But none of the candidates can distance themselves too far from Trump’s lies and doubt-sowing about the 2020 election. They need only look to the US House to see the consequences of doing so.

Neither Youngkin nor Snyder will say Biden’s presidency is legitimate. Cox appears willing to do so (at least when he’s not at a diner in southwest Virginia).

And everyone has plans to improve election integrity. Youngkin promotes his “election security task force,” one plank of which is updating voter rolls monthly. He and Cox talk about making the state election commission nonpartisan. Snyder wants to “make Virginia No. 1 in ballot integrity.”

They’re all fairly anodyne-sounding proposals, but talking about things like that is a requirement for securing the nomination, says Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington.

“While they may not support what happened on January 6, they do want to offer a position that shows some sympathy to the position of Trump supporters,” Farnsworth said.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the rhetoric will dog them during the general election — Youngkin’s spokesperson said they believe election security isn’t a partisan issue, “it’s a democracy issue.”

And “Kirk Cox is an example of a candidate who accepts Biden as a legitimate president but nevertheless speaks in ways that gives some solace to Trump supporters,” Farnsworth pointed out, adding it’s likely that “voters in November will not be dramatically impacted by what’s said in May.”

Still, the insistence on making America’s elections more secure helps perpetuate a world in which seven out of 10 Republican voters still say — per a recent CNN poll — that Biden didn’t win enough votes to be president.

Questioning election integrity is coming home to roost

And the continued questioning of elections has applied even to their own party’s choices. Some of those choices, admittedly, merit scrutiny from candidates extolling the importance of signatures on absentee ballots. But it also led Youngkin, Cox, and Chase to write to the party, demanding it not use “untested and unproven software that creates uncertainty, lacks openness and transparency, and is inconsistent with our calls as a party for safe and secure elections.”

Now, every ranked-choice ballot will be counted by hand, at a ballroom at the Richmond Marriott, race by race. Chair Rich Anderson detailed to the Virginia Scope’s Brandon Jarvis the lengths the Republican Party of Virginia is going to try to instill confidence in the process:

  • Each ballot “will be seen by several eyes at the same time” to guard against transposition of numbers.
  • An out-of-state independent oversight team will be present.
  • Each candidate can have two representatives in the counting room, a party spokesperson told Vox. And Anderson said they can “be pretty much right up on the ballots, and eyes on them,” because he wants “them to feel comfortable with the process, to understand it, and have confidence in the final outcomes.”
  • The news media can be on site to report, and Anderson says he’ll provide regular updates on social media as well.

They’ve also set aside money to livestream the counting process, because, Anderson said, “I just don’t want to repeat what was done in different places around the country where people were concerned about it being an opaque process.”

That’s left “no room” for any conspiracy theories about the counting to crop up, says John March, the state party communications director. Even so, there are bound to be some dissidents, and if it takes days, Coleman says he cansee the conspiracy theories now.”

“When you have a multi-candidate field in a multi-round election,” Farnsworth said, “the only sound bet is expecting that the party won’t get together and sing ‘kumbaya’ when this is all over.”

Do these Republicans even have a shot in a general election?

Virginia, once home to the capital of the Confederacy, has moved left enough in presidential races that on election night in 2020, the forecast group Decision Desk called it for Joe Biden right as polls closed. Trump ended up with just 44 percent of the vote here, Biden with 54.

But the GOP argues the state is not lost to them just yet.

In recent decades, Virginia had a peevish streak, electing a governor from the opposite party that just won the White House. The candidate to break that trend was former Gov. Terry McAuliffe — who’s running again this year.

And March points to the “unprecedented” level of interest in the convention as a sign of what’s to come: “54,000 people are getting involved on the grassroots level. ... You don’t really see that, and that just shows how excited Virginia Republicans are.”

Without Trump on the ballot this year, there might be an opening — a slim one for the governorship, but a bigger one to flip competitive state House districts. The person Republicans choose on Saturday will matter a lot.

“One thing I do think that could bode well for them is even though he lost, in 2017 Ed Gillespie got more votes than any previous Republican nominee for governor,” Coleman pointed out. “So maybe if Youngkin or whoever else can get that type of Gillespie turnout, which is definitely a question mark, and Democrats can’t get that anti-Trump turnout, maybe it’s going to be closer.”

Even so, it’s going to be an uphill battle for the GOP to narrow margins in some areas, let alone retake them. Take Chesterfield County, which Republicans easily won for decades. In 2020, it went for Biden by more than 6 percentage points.

“Going forward,” Coleman says, “this may be the last potential cycle where the Republicans could win a county like Chesterfield, and that may not even be enough — it may be necessary but not sufficient.”

Democrats seem to think it won’t be.

“We’re ready for a fight; we expect a fight. We expect a tough race,” said David Turner, the communications director for the Democratic Governors Association. “But what I would say is you can’t report accurately on the state of Virginia without acknowledging there’s pre-Trump and there’s post-Trump, and we’re still post-Trump.”

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