HOT SPRINGS, Va. — U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman confirmed Saturday that he’s preparing to run for governor in 2017, making him the second Republican candidate in a race that’s still nearly two years away.
Wittman, who will seek another term in Congress next year, said he expects to create a political action committee after the first of the year.
“Obviously our focus is on winning in 2016, but I am preparing for 2017,” he said in an interview during the state GOP’s annual retreat.
Buzz has been building about the low-key congressman since last year when he sponsored his first-ever suite at the event, a move that typically let’s party observers know a politician is exploring higher office. He had a suite this year, too.
Former GOP strategist and White House counselor Ed Gillespie is also seeking the party’s nomination and has already raised more than $400,000 toward the $25 million he said a candidate needs to be competitive.
Speculation was widespread this weekend that former attorney general Ken Cuccinelli II, who narrowly lost to Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) in 2013, will run again in 2017, but he won’t make his decision public until after the presidential election.
Several party insiders said Wittman appears to be positioning himself to the right of Gillespie. He did not endorse House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) who faced an intraparty challenge last summer from Susan Stimpson, a tea party-influenced hopeful.
And, he prefers a convention to choose the party’s nominee, which has been a litmus test for hard-core conservatives irked by what they see as establishment candidates’ squishy ideology. That method, which attracts the most activists to a one-day party-run gathering, tends to result in more conservative candidates. A state-run primary is open to all voters.
Wittman said his early gubernatorial strategy will resemble the work he’s done in Congress for eight years.
“We’ll be doing the same things we’ll be doing for re-election, it’ll just be expanded beyond the boundaries of the First District,” he said. The First District is sprawling, running up eastern Virginia from Yorktown to Prince William County.
Wittman won a convention in a special election for Congress in 2007. He said previous experience serving on the Montross Town Council, including a decade as mayor, the Westmoreland County Board of Supervisors and state House of Delegates helped prepare him to run the state.
He also touted service as chairman of the U.S. House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee and passage of the Chesapeake Bay Accountability and Recovery Act to help clean up the waterway.
It’s unclear where his base of support is centered at a time when deep mistrust of the federal government is fueling outsider candidates for president, including celebrity billionaire Donald Trump to neurosurgeon Ben Carson.