Get ready for your close-up, Vir­ginia

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - BY MARK J. ROZELL

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.

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