As I wrote last week, Virginia’s statewide elections this November will be a critical bellwether on how voters are feeling about Donald Trump, the Republican White House, and the Republican agenda. Democrats will pour millions of dollars into the race, seeking to test their message in a purple state before the 2018 midterm elections. Republicans will be looking for a stamp of approval of their first year in control that will fuel their attempts to build their U.S. Senate majority in 2018. Political observers will be watching Virginia very closely.
Virginia was a red state for decades, but demographic changes and an increase in the number of federal employees living in the Washington suburbs have pushed the state leftward. Virginia Republicans have not won a statewide election since 2009, and all three statewide positions (governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general) are occupied by Democrats. Conservatives are hungry for a win in Virginia.
There are many solid candidates running in the Republican primaries in June for these positions. Let’s take a look.
Ed Gillespie seems to be the front runner. A resident of Northern Virginia, he is the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, a former White House Counselor to President George W. Bush, and was the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in 2014, coming within 0.8 percent of beating the popular Democrat incumbent Mark Warner. The son of an Irish immigrant, he began his career as an attendant at the U.S. Senate parking lot on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. He impressed many people with his 2014 campaign, which analysts expected to be an easy win for the Democrats. This time around, he has been running another disciplined and hardworking campaign. He is a likable man and a solid conservative. He has made pro-economic growth policies, de-regulations, the right to life, and religious freedom key components of his message. His weaknesses are his deep ties to Washington, at a time when the D.C. establishment is unpopular, but so far those criticisms don’t seem to be sticking. As a solid conservative, he is enjoying support from all corners of Virginia and has led every poll thus far.
Corey Stewart is the Chairman of the Board of Supervisors in Prince William County, which is in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. He has made a name for himself implementing tough policies against illegal immigration in the county, which resulted in 8,000 illegal immigrants being turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). He ran for lieutenant governor in 2013, receiving 20 percent of the vote at the nominating convention. He is running a scrappy campaign modeled off Trump’s presidential campaign. He served as chairman of Trump’s campaign in Virginia, but was fired a month before the election for staging a protest that the Trump campaign did not approve of outside the offices of the RNC in the wake of the “Access Hollywood” tape scandal. He remained defiantly supportive of Trump and has even modeled his Twitter feed after Trump’s style of tweeting. His tendency to stage stunts, such as a protest in front of the Charlottesville City Council over the proposed removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, gets him off message and into unimportant battles with the media. He is Gillespie’s toughest opponent but trails him significantly.
Denver Riggleman is a little-known distillery owner and Air Force veteran from west-central Virginia. He has impressed voters with his plain-spoken style and positions that lean populist. He is pro-life but supports same-sex marriage, which will be problematic for conservatives. Few people in conservative circles, much less Virginians in general, had heard of him before he made a late entry into the race in December 2016, so low name-recognition will be a real problem. As such a little-known candidate, he should have begun campaigning much earlier. He probably will not crack double digits in the primary, but we’ll see how things develop over the next three months before the June primary.
Frank Wagner is a state senator and Navy veteran from Virginia Beach. He has served in the state legislature since 1992. Of all the candidates, he is probably the most establishment-oriented. An ally of Eric Cantor, he was involved in a nasty battle over “slating” in 2014, when he attempted to reduce the number of eligible delegates to a local Republican convention from 1,000 to 32 in an attempt to get control of the process. He is conservative on most issues and has done well in his service in the General Assembly, but he doesn’t really present anything new that Virginia Republicans haven’t tried before and doesn’t seem to be working very hard. His chances at this point are low.
A brief look at the Democrats running for governor: Current Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam is running for governor on the Democratic side and appears to be the front runner, but a late and surprising entry from one-term former Congressman Tom Perriello is complicating things. Both of them are far leftists, but while Northam tries to play the moderate, Perriello is an unabashed hard liberal. Northam will probably win out, but not without some headaches from Perriello.
The Virginia lieutenant governor has not had much power historically; pretty much the only constitutional power of the office is to break ties in the state Senate. But that has been critical in the past few years as the Senate has been either tied between Republicans and Democrats, or one party has held a one-seat majority. There is no clear front runner among the Republicans at this point.
Bryce Reeves is a state Senator, retired U.S. Army Ranger, retired police officer, and business owner from central Virginia who was first elected to the Senate in 2011. He has an impressive biography and rock-solid conservative credentials. He brokered a deal with Gov. Terry McAuliffe to restore concealed carry gun rights “in exchange for voluntary background checks at gun shows and tougher restrictions on domestic abusers.” The deal was praised by the NRA as a victory for gun rights. He’s a strong candidate, but his campaign has been dragged down by a feud with…
Jill Vogel, a state senator, attorney and conservative activist who has represented many Republicans through her law firm. She has pushed her social conservative credentials during her campaign. She raised over $1 million in 2016, a sizable sum for a lieutenant governor candidate. She would certainly make a compelling nominee. But about that feud with Reeves — it’s a long, ugly story, but an email was sent around accusing Reeves of an affair, and the email was traced to an IP address located at Vogel’s house. Vogel has denied having anything to do with the email, but Reeves filed a defamation lawsuit against her, and there’s no end in sight to the bruising battle. It’s turning a lot of voters off towards both Reeves and Vogel and boosting…
Glenn Davis, a state House delegate and telecommunications company founder from Norfolk. He has been working his tail off, traveling thousands of miles around the Commonwealth since last year. His campaign vehicle is an RV that he actually lives in during the General Assembly session in Richmond. On the surface, he’s not a terribly impressive candidate, but the more people hear him speak the more they tend to like him. He was elected to the House in 2013, so his record is short, but he voted against a religious freedom bill that would have protected people who believe in natural marriage from government discrimination. That’s extremely problematic for conservatives. He began as an underdog, but if the Reeves-Vogel fight gets any nastier, Davis’s chances will continue to go up — he led a new poll released last week.
A brief look at the Democrats running for Governor: Justin Fairfax is the front runner, having previously run for the Democratic nomination for Attorney General in 2013. He’s raised nearly half a million dollars. A 37-year-old dental practice owner and former federal prosecutor, he will be a formidable candidate. Also running for the Democratic nomination are Joe Biden’s former Senate chief of staff Susan Platt, and former prosecutor Gene Rossi.
Incumbent Attorney General Mark Herring is running for re-election. His tenure has been marked by repeated abuses of power and disregarding the law he is supposed to defend and uphold. One of his first acts in office was a flagrant violation of his oath — not only did he refuse to defend Virginia’s marriage laws against a challenge, he joined the other side and attacked Virginia’s constitution in federal court. Then he unilaterally revoked Virginia’s concealed carry reciprocity agreements with 25 states in another abuse of power. Mark Herring does not care about the Constitution; he is using his office to enforce his own opinions. He has to go.
John Adams is not well known but sharing a name with the second president of the United States can only help. Adams has an impressive resume — he has served as a federal prosecutor, U.S. Navy officer, and clerk for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. He currently leads the government investigations department at a prominent Virginia firm. In 2014, he wrote an amicus brief in the Hobby Lobby case, which resulted in a major victory for religious freedom at the Supreme Court. (He was writing on behalf of fifteen members of Congress who originally voted for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993.) He has taken a courageous stand against the redefinition of marriage, saying, “The Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision forcing the states to redefine marriage was not based on anything in the Constitution, and it denied American citizens of the very right to self-government our Founding Fathers fought for.” He has raised a huge war chest of $700,000 — nearly matching the incumbent Herring. He’s made a strong impression on Virginians across the Commonwealth and is the clear front runner.
Chuck Smith also has an impressive resume as a retired Marine and retired U.S. Navy JAG Commander. He has an inspiring life story: raised by his grandmother in public housing in North Carolina, he enlisted in the Marine Corps at 17 in the midst of the Vietnam War. He also has a long record of service in the Republican Party. He’s a great speaker and unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 2010. He was an early and ardent Trump supporter. But his campaign has left a lot to be desired — he’s raised a paltry $10,000 and has not done much traveling around the Commonwealth, giving the impression of a laziness. He does not seem to be running a serious campaign, but we’ll see how things develop.
If you’ve made it to the end, consider yourself primed for the biggest elections of the year.
Photo credit: Erik Hersman via Flickr, CC BY 2.0