Race for GOP nomination heats up
Three vie for Republican gubernatorial nod in debate at Liberty University
Ed Gillespie on Thursday worked to sidestep charges from his Virginia GOP gubernatorial rivals that he’s a flip-flopping career party insider, pledging to run a campaign in 2017 that will make Republicans proud and saying he’ll be a governor for “all Virginians.”
Mr. Gillespie, Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart, and state Sen. Frank Wagner faced off in a Republican debate at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, ahead of a June primary election.
Mr. Stewart referred to Mr. Gillespie, who has been leading in recent polls on the GOP field, as a “30-year lobbyist from Washington, D.C.,” and said he’s changed his past positions on issues like illegal immigration.
“In front of a Republican crowd here, Ed says one thing. But when he’s in front of a general election, as he was in 2014, he was saying a totally different thing,” Mr. Stewart said.
Mr. Gillespie lost to Sen. Mark R. Warner in a close U.S. Senate race in Virginia in 2014.
“As he was supporting amnesty, I was deporting criminal illegal aliens and taking the grief for it,” said Mr. Stewart, who has helped pass tough policies on illegal immigration in his county.
Mr. Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman, responded by telling people to visit his own website “and Google ‘Corey Stewart lies.’”
He said his record on the issue has been “consistent” and said he actually opposed a plan from President George W. Bush in 2006 to allow for citizenship for certain illegal immigrants. Mr. Gillespie is also a former adviser to Mr. Bush.
“I have always opposed amnesty,” he said. Mr. Wagner, meanwhile, described Mr. Gillespie as a “24-carat, gold-plated Washington insider.”
In general, though, Mr. Gillespie refrained from responding directly to such potshots and spent much of his time during the hour-long debate talking up his own plans, including a tax plan he says will create more than 53,000 jobs in the commonwealth.
He closed by pledging to run a campaign “that makes us all proud” and said he’d improve public schools and transportation and tackle problems involving heroin and opioid abuse.
Mr. Stewart closed by painting himself as a winner who’s not afraid of confrontation.
“When others talk, I deliver,” Mr. Stewart said, touting his experience cutting spending and cracking down on illegal immigrants during his time in Prince William.
Mr. Stewart also served as President Trump’s Virginia state chairman but was fired in October after participating in a protest outside Republican National Committee headquarters. He also ran unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor in 2013.
Mr. Wagner, meanwhile, urged listeners to put his resume up against those of his two rivals.
“Read the resumes: a D.C. insider. A lawyer,” Mr. Wagner said. “Or a Naval Academy graduate with real business experience who’s worn a hardhat all his life … and someone with the experience in Richmond to move this state forward.”
Mr. Wagner, a state senator who represents parts of Virginia Beach, has served in the state legislature as a senator and as a member of the House of Delegates for more than 25 years.
Mr. Gillespie has been leading in recent polling on the GOP primary candidates. He had 28 percent support to Mr. Stewart’s 12 percent and Mr. Wagner’s 7 percent in a Quinnipiac poll released this week, though more than half of Republican voters said they were still undecided.
Mr. Gillespie, Mr. Stewart, and Mr. Wagner are looking to hand the GOP its first win in a major statewide election since 2009, when Republicans swept the governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general races.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, is prohibited from seeking a second consecutive term.
In 2013, Mr. McAuliffe helped break a decadeslong streak of Virginia voters picking a governor belonging to the opposite party of the incumbent U.S. president.
Mr. McAuliffe is supporting Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, who is battling former Rep. Tom Perriello to be the Democratic nominee.
Republican gubernatorial candidate, Corey Stewart (center) gestures during opening statements as State Sen. Frank Wagner, left, and Ed Gillespie listen during a debate at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia on Thursday. Mr. Gillespie is the current leader among the three GOP candidates-- he’s polling at 28 percent.