GOP’s deep split in race for Va. ticket

Bud­gets, ‘cucks’ and tax cuts: Repub­li­can fo­rum high­lights would-be gov­er­nors’ starkly dif­fer­ent pitches

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY LAURA VOZZELLA

One came tout­ing a tax cut pro­posal and a prom­ise to unify a di­vided party and state. An­other de­liv­ered dire warn­ings about “the rav­ages of crim­i­nal il­le­gal im­mi­grants.” The third un­furled a hefty leg­isla­tive ré­sumé.

The three Repub­li­cans vy­ing to be­come Vir­ginia’s next gov­er­nor made starkly dif­fer­ent pitches Satur­day in vote-rich but deeply blue Fair­fax County, giv­ing more than 300 GOP ac­tivists a chance to size them up side by side less than three months be­fore the June 13 pri­mary.

In the end, the man with the tax plan — for­mer Repub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee chair­man Ed Gille­spie — walked away the win­ner of the Fair­fax GOP’s straw poll. But sec­ond-place fin­isher Corey Ste­wart got the most rous­ing re­sponse, with the au­di­ence re­peat­edly in­ter­rupt­ing his broad­side against il­le­gal im­mi­grants with chants of “Corey! Corey! Corey!” State Sen. Frank Wag­ner (Vir­ginia Beach), who high­lighted his de­vo­tion to trans­porta­tion so­lu­tions as a vet­eran law­maker, was a dis­tant third.

Gille­spie, who lives in Fair­fax, won with 172 votes. Ste­wart, who re­cently lost to Gille­spie in a straw poll in his own home county of Prince Wil­liam, had 120. Wag­ner took just 16.

Though the re­sults don’t count in the nom­i­nat­ing con­test, straw polls are thought to pro­vide an early read on where ac­tivists would like to take the party. And just where this swing-state GOP is head­ing is a mat­ter of in­tense in­ter­est fol­low­ing Don­ald Trump’s White House win.

Vir­ginia is one of just two states — the other be­ing New Jersey — with a gov­er­nor’s race this year. So the pri­mary con­test could hint at whether, early in the Trump pres­i­dency, Repub­li­cans are still itch­ing for out­siders or are now pin­ing for more con­ven­tional can­di­dates.

The stakes are es­pe­cially high in Vir­ginia, where Repub­li­cans have not won a statewide elec­tion since 2009. While the GOP con­trols both cham­bers of the Gen­eral Assem­bly, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has been able to thwart many Repub­li­can pri­or­i­ties on guns, abor­tion and other heated is­sues through ex­ec­u­tive or­ders and a record-bust­ing use of his veto pen.

The com­mon­wealth’s pol­i­tics

are es­pe­cially tricky. Trump, after all, won Vir­ginia’s GOP pri­mary but lost the state in Novem­ber to Demo­crat Hil­lary Clin­ton. Repub­li­cans en­er­gized by Trump’s pres­i­dency might not get ex­cited about an es­tab­lish­ment fig­ure such as Gille­spie, a long­time po­lit­i­cal strate­gist who was a coun­selor to Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush. Yet the blunt-spo­ken Ste­wart, who led an im­mi­gra­tion crack­down in Prince Wil­liam and likes to brag that “I was Trump be­fore Trump was Trump,” could turn off mod­er­ate Repub­li­cans and swing vot­ers in the in­creas­ingly di­verse state.

All three Repub­li­cans are vy­ing to suc­ceed McAuliffe, who is barred by the state Con­sti­tu­tion from suc­ceed­ing him­self. Two Democrats are con­tend­ing for their party’s nom­i­na­tion: Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and for­mer con­gress­man Tom Per­riello.

Be­fore vot­ing be­gan at Robin­son Sec­ondary School, where Repub­li­cans run­ning for at­tor­ney gen­eral and lieu­tenant gov­er­nor also ap­peared, can­di­dates spoke one after the other for seven min­utes apiece, with­out in­ter­act­ing or tak­ing ques­tions. None of the can­di­dates took di­rect swipes at ri­vals, but it was not hard to in­fer them at times.

“I will unify our party, and I will ap­peal to all Vir­gini­ans, and I will be a gov­er­nor for all Vir­gini­ans,” said Gille­spie, who went first. “We need that.”

Gille­spie gave a nod to so­cial is­sues, not­ing in quick suc­ces­sion that he would pro­tect “in­no­cent hu­man life, re­li­gious free­dom, and the in­di­vid­ual right to keep and bear arms.” But he spent the bulk of his time talk­ing about the need to im­prove the state’s econ­omy, fo­cus­ing on his chief so­lu­tion: a 10 per­cent across-the-board tax cut.

Ste­wart, who went next, ap­peared one day after state GOP Chair­man John Whit­beck de­nounced him for de­scrib­ing Gille­spie as a “cuck­ser­va­tive.” Whit­beck said that the in­sult, de­rived from the word “cuck­old,” is a racist term pop­u­lar­ized by white na­tion­al­ists. Ste­wart said he was un­aware of the racial over­tones and meant it as a syn­onym for a “RINO,” or a “Repub­li­can In Name Only.”

On Satur­day, Ste­wart held back on the in­sults but not much else, mak­ing a cal­cu­la­tion that a Trump-style ap­peal would sell well to Repub­li­cans even in lib­eral-lean­ing North­ern Vir­ginia. From a brief nod to his wife and chil­dren, he dove di­rectly into im­mi­gra­tion.

“As a fa­ther, 10 years ago, I saw some­thing so de­spi­ca­ble: peo­ple who are not sup­posed to be in our coun­try in the first place com­mit­ting rapes and mur­ders and other heinous crimes,” he said. “Some peo­ple say, ‘Why are you so mean against il­le­gal aliens?’ Be­cause they’re com­mit­ting crimes against our fam­i­lies.”

Ste­wart of­ten taunts Gille­spie by call­ing him “Es­tab­lish­ment Ed.” He re­frained on Satur­day but blasted es­tab­lish­ment Repub­li­cans in gen­eral, say­ing there is lit­tle dif­fer­ence be­tween them and es­tab­lish­ment Democrats.

“If you want some­body who’s not go­ing to back down to the press and the loony left, then I am your can­di­date,” he said.

All three can­di­dates have spent their lives in and around pol­i­tics. But Wag­ner, who went last, was the only one to ex­plic­itly tout the ben­e­fits of elect­ing an in­sider. As a state Se­nate bud­get ne­go­tia­tor, he said, he knows state spend­ing in­side and out. As a sen­a­tor who has pushed for trans­porta­tion fund­ing, he said, he knows how to make sure the state gets the most bang for ev­ery buck it spends on roads.

He also talked up his back­ground as a Navy vet­eran and ship­yard owner, say­ing that the lat­ter made him acutely aware of the bur­dens of gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tions. “If you ever want to go buy a reg­u­lated in­dus­try, go buy a ship­yard,” he said.

Some of the ac­tivists at the event said they could be happy with any of the three as gov­er­nor.

Jane Lawler-Sav­itske of Spring­field, who knit­ted a pink prayer shawl as she lis­tened, said she’s known Gille­spie and Ste­wart for many years. She praised Ste­wart’s sup­port of an im­mi­gra­tion crack­down in Prince Wil­liam but said that it drove im­mi­grants into Fair­fax, caus­ing an “in­flux of MS-13 gang mem­bers, all cov­ered in tat­toos and run­ning sex-slave rings around the county.”

Still, Lawler-Sav­itske cast her bal­lot for Gille­spie. “I think he acts more like a states­man,” she said.

Richard Rankin, a me­dia spe­cial­ist from Falls Church, was con­vinced Ste­wart would have a bet­ter shot.

“Mush does not sell any­more,” he said. “You want hot is­sues to mo­ti­vate peo­ple . . . . This is how Trump won. He tapped into the emo­tion.”

AL­LI­SON SHELLEY FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Vir­ginia vot­ers browse cam­paign ta­bles at Satur­day’s Repub­li­can can­di­date fo­rum in Fair­fax, where the three con­tenders in the GOP gu­ber­na­to­rial pri­mary laid out stances on top­ics such as im­mi­gra­tion, trans­porta­tion and party uni­fi­ca­tion.

ABOVE: Vir­ginia gu­ber­na­to­rial hope­ful Ed Gille­spie waits to speak at Satur­day’s can­di­date event in Fair­fax. At­ten­dees also heard from Gille­spie’s ri­vals, Corey Ste­wart and state Sen. Frank Wag­ner, as well as from peo­ple vy­ing for other of­fices. RIGHT: More than 300 vot­ers at­tended. After hear­ing from each can­di­date, they fa­vored Gille­spie in a straw poll.

PHOTOS BY AL­LI­SON SHELLEY FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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