Virginia G.O.P.’s Choices for Governor: ‘Trumpy, Trumpier, Trumpiest’
As the party prepares to pick its nominee this weekend, the race embodies the collapse of Republican power in a state that has tilted more sharply to Democrats than perhaps any other.,
MIDLOTHIAN, Va. — One candidate brands himself a “conservative outlaw.” Another boasts of her bipartisan censure by the State Senate for calling the Capitol rioters “patriots.” A third, asked about Dominion voting machines — the subject of egregious conspiracy theories on the right — called them “the most important issue” of the campaign.
These are not fringe candidates for the Republican nomination for Virginia governor.
They are three of the leading contenders in a race that in many ways embodies the decade-long meltdown of Republican power in Virginia, a once-purple state that has gyrated more decisively toward Democrats than perhaps any in the country. In part, that is because of the hard-right focus of recent Republican officeseekers, a trend that preceded former President Donald J. Trump and became a riptide during his time in the White House.
The party’s race to the right shows no sign of tempering as a preselected group of Republicans gather on Saturday at 39 sites around Virginia to choose a nominee for governor. That candidate will advance to a November general election that has traditionally been a report card on the party in power in Washington, as well as a portent of the midterms nationally.
After a monthslong G.O.P. schism, Virginia Republicans decided to hold a nominating convention rather than a primary, which would attract a broader field of voters. At the party’s “disassembled convention,” as it is called, delegates who have been vetted by local Republican officials will choose the nominee, which critics say perpetuates the party’s narrow appeal.
Al and Julia Kent, moderate Republican voters in the Richmond suburbs, won’t be participating.
“It’s so confusing,” said Mr. Kent, an Air Force veteran who found the paperwork to register for Saturday’s nominating process to be intrusive. He said it had asked questions that “the Republican Party doesn’t need to know.”
His wife, a retired preschool teacher, said, “I don’t think the Republican Party is listening to anybody — the normal class of people, what they want.”
The Kents both voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 and 2020, but they are worried about his legacy of divisiveness, in America and the G.O.P. “I think he’s ruined the Republican Party,” Ms. Kent said.
Once a Republican stronghold, Virginia did not vote for a Democratic presidential nominee in 10 elections before 2008. But ever since 2009, Republicans have lost 13 consecutive statewide elections.
Changing demographics are part of the reason: A booming economy in Northern Virginia has drawn educated, racially diverse professionals from out of state, as well as immigrants. Both groups have shifted the populous region leftward.
Suburban changes have also remade greater Richmond, including Chesterfield County, south and west of the capital city, where the Kents live. President Biden carried Chesterfield County in November, becoming the first Democratic presidential candidate to win here in 72 years.
But demographics don’t tell the whole story. Republican candidates and their messages have also undermined the party’s appeal, G.O.P. elders said in interviews. In response to a changing state, Republicans have nominated ideologues who fanned polarizing social issues like abortion, illegal immigration and preserving Confederate statues. This year’s No. 1 priority for most candidates is “election integrity,” the base-rousing cause fueled by Mr. Trump’s false claims of a rigged 2020 vote.
Former Gov. Bob McDonnell, the last Republican elected statewide, said his path to victory — a focus on “kitchen table issues” that appeal to “the working dad and soccer mom” — was rarely pursued by the party’s nominees anymore. “There’s been an inability for us to connect with the suburban voters,” he said.
Instead, Republicans make their pitch to white voters in the state’s western mountains and other rural counties, which have turned redder as the majority of the state tilts Democratic.
A poll this week by Christopher Newport University found that majorities of Virginia voters supported liberal policies, including “Medicare for all,” a path to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants and a Green New Deal to tackle climate change.
Larry J. Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said the Republican candidates for governor this year fit into three categories: “Trumpy, Trumpier, Trumpiest.”
By embracing the former president, who lost Virginia by 10 percentage points last year, Republicans are trading electability in the general election for viability in a primary. “They play the Republican nominating game very well, but they go so far to the right that most people find them offensive,” Mr. Sabato said. “It’s not respectable anymore for well-educated people to identify with the Trump G.O.P.”
Many Virginia Republicans said the party’s decision to hold a nominating convention with preselected voters typified the party’s self-inflicted wounds. The move was made after a bitter public squabble among central committee members of the state party.
The choice of a convention — to be held at disparate sites because the state has banned mass gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic — has historically favored candidates who appeal to party activists, rather than to the more ideologically diverse voters who show up for a primary.
“We don’t just preach voter suppression, we practice it,” said former Representative Tom Davis, a moderate Republican who served seven terms in Northern Virginia. “Why don’t we try to build the party and be a welcoming party instead of being exclusionary? Frankly, it says a lot about where we are as a party.”
The Republican Party of Virginia says that 53,524 people successfully signed up to participate in the convention, more than many predicted, but far fewer than the 366,000 who voted in the Republican primary for governor in 2017.
There is no reliable public polling of the field because of the difficulty of surveying conventiongoers. Most insiders throw up their arms if asked which candidates have the edge.
Kirk Cox, a former speaker of the House in the state’s General Assembly, is the favorite of establishment Republicans. Recognizing that he may not be the grass-roots favorite, he has appealed to be voters’ second choice. The ballot is formatted with ranked-choice voting, meaning that if no one wins more than 50 percent — as expected — the last-place finisher will be eliminated and his or her supporters’ second-choice votes will be allocated to the remaining candidates. That process will continue until a winner attains a majority. The outcome could take several days.
Mr. Cox, a former high school teacher, represents a part of Chesterfield County that he calls “the bluest Republican-held district in the state,” which is his selling point to voters looking ahead to the general election.
Still, party activists have not responded much to an electability message in recent years.
Competition for the Trump-centric base is split between State Senator Amanda Chase, a firebrand who was censured by fellow lawmakers in January, and Pete Snyder, a wealthy technology executive, who is the one running as the “outlaw conservative.”
Ms. Chase recently visited Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump’s resort in Florida, hoping for his endorsement. She said she came away with a fist bump. The former president has not signaled a favorite in the race.
The fourth top contender is Glenn Youngkin, a first-time candidate with a large fortune from a career in private equity. He has said election integrity is his top issue.
At a forum hosted by the Virginia Federation of Republican Women last month, he and other candidates were asked if they would demand an audit of the coming November election if Dominion voting machines were used. Dominion is the company spuriously accused by Mr. Trump and his allies of changing votes in 2020; after the company filed and threatened lawsuits, it won retractions from Fox News, Newsmax and other conservative outlets.
In response to the Dominion question, Mr. Youngkin said, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is the most important issue we’re going to talk about right now.” He laid out “five steps to restore our trust” in elections.
A former co-chief executive of the Carlyle Group, Mr. Youngkin has spent at least $5.5 million of his own money on the race. Part of his appeal to Republicans is that in the general election, he could theoretically match the spending of the leading Democrat, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
Polls show that Mr. McAuliffe, with the advantage of name recognition from an earlier term, has a hefty lead over three Democratic rivals going into their party primary on June 8.
To many observers, it was the 2013 race won by Mr. McAuliffe that began the rout of Virginia Republicans. Ahead of that election, social conservatives gained control of the G.O.P. central committee, canceled a primary and chose one of their own, Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, at a Tea Party-flavored convention.
Mr. Cuccinelli lost to Mr. McAuliffe, a Democratic fund-raiser and friend of Hillary and Bill Clinton’s — thus beginning Republicans’ years in the wilderness.
“That’s a direct result of the Cuccinelli heist, if you will,” said Chris Peace, a Republican former state lawmaker. “Much of the old guard, the center-right of the party, was pushed out.”
Four years later, the party’s nominee for governor in 2017, Ed Gillespie, lost decisively after making a Trumpian effort to stir fear of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. The next year, the party’s Senate nominee, Corey Stewart, ran on preserving Confederate statues — and lost in a landslide.
And in 2019, the G.O.P. lost control over both houses of the state General Assembly for the first time in a generation.
This year, with Mr. Trump gone from the White House, Republicans hope their prospects will improve in November, especially after unified Democratic control in Richmond has pushed through a broad progressive agenda.
Gov. Ralph Northam, who cannot run for a second consecutive term, has signed laws that repealed the state’s voter identification requirement, imposed broad gun restrictions, made Virginia the first Southern state to abolish the death penalty and will raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2026.
“Democrats have a lot to answer for that they didn’t four years ago,” Mr. Cox said. “I see it as the best issue mix for Republicans since 2009.”
Bridget O’Connell, a mother of four young children in Chesterfield County, called herself “a gun activist” and said Democrats had gone too far in their restrictions, including a “red-flag” law that lets the authorities seize weapons from a person deemed a threat.
Ms. O’Connell, 32, voted for Mr. Trump in 2016, but she did not vote last year. She was worried that Americans would become even angrier and more polarized if he remained in office, but she did not think Mr. Biden was the answer.
She will not be participating in the Republican nominating convention. She did not know she had to preregister. As for November, she might or might not vote, depending on how divisive she perceives the candidates to be.
“I think the majority of people don’t want that,” she said. “I think the majority of people really are normal kind of people.”