Get ready for your close-up, Virginia
Virginia’s political campaigns were already bound to command a fair share of national media attention in 2017. After all, as Virginia is one of only two states (New Jersey is the other) to regularly hold statewide elections the year after presidential contests, gubernatorial elections here often are seen as an early referendum on a new president.
Although gubernatorial elections most often are driven by state issues, not federal ones, this year President Trump has already emerged as a major issue in the Virginia campaign. A quick ride across the Potomac River from their D.C. bureaus, the Old Dominion therefore will be irresistible to the national media.
And the show is on here. The populist earthquake that heaved Trump into the White House in November is producing major aftershocks in Virginia. Insurgencies are shaking up both political parties. And there are eerie similarities between last year’s dramatic presidential contest and the races shaping up in Virginia.
Last year at this time, Democratic and Republican establishments were hoping to nominate well-connected mainstream candidates for governor in 2017. The Trump phenomenon upended everything.
The path for Virginia Republicans is complicated. Remember, Hillary Clinton carried Virginia by a respectable five percentage points just a few months ago.
Recent statewide surveys by Roanoke College and Quinnipiac University indicate widespread disapproval of Trump’s early performance and policies. The surveys also reveal a sharply divided Virginia electorate.
So, Republican candidates in the four-way gubernatorial nominating contest must calibrate how much to run with Trump — and how much to run away from him.
Former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie, who demonstrated surprising strength by almost upsetting incumbent Democrat Mark R. Warner in Virginia’s 2014 U.S. Senate race, was long viewed as the odds-on favorite for the GOP gubernatorial nomination. A consummate political insider, Gillespie kept his distance from Trump during the presidential campaign, and that doesn’t sit well with Trump’s supporters.
Corey A. Stewart, the outspoken immigrant-bashing chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, is all in with Trump. Stewart, who began his campaign by raffling an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, was cochairman of the Trump campaign in Virginia until he protested that national Republicans weren’t devoting enough resources to Trump’s campaign here, which led to his dismissal.
Former Air Force intelligence officer Denver Riggleman claims he is the genuine populist in the GOP nominating race. Riggleman, co-owner of a distillery near Charlottesville, praises Trump but also borrows from the playbook of the late Democratic legislator Henry E. Howell by taking on Dominion Virginia Power and vowing to “keep the big boys honest.”
In another era, longtime Virginia state Sen. Frank W. Wagner of Virginia Beach might have been able to make more of his credentials in the legislature, but this year, Wagner struggles to be heard and is generally regarded as “the fourth man” in the race.
Virginia Democrats also have challenges in 2017.
For more than a year, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, most often described as genteel and low-key, seemed to have a clear path to the party’s gubernatorial nomination.
But in early January, former congressman Tom Perriello announced his surprise candidacy for governor and set out to energize progressives, much as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) did in the 2016 presidential race.
Most Virginians are not tuned in to the governor’s race yet, but the fact that early polls show Northam and Perriello tied must be troubling to Democratic leaders who had hoped they might escape a messy nomination contest.
Meanwhile, as politicians maneuver for advantage, the public is restless. Normally sleepy townhall meetings with Virginia’s members of Congress have attracted crowds of noisy Virginians angry with Trump’s immigration and health-care policies. It appears progressive “resisters” may finally have learned a few tricks from the tea party.
We know Trump’s people are passionate. Maybe it’s catching.
With drama unfolding in full view here, expect plenty of national media coverage. But don’t count on all Virginians to believe what’s written. After all, that recent Roanoke College survey revealed that 44 percent of Virginia Republicans have “no confidence at all” in the news media.
The writer is dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.