RICHMOND — Former White House adviser Ed Gillespie on Monday announced the formation of a committee for his 2017 bid for Virginia governor and said he will formally begin his campaign in January with a statewide tour.
Gillespie, a Republican who kept his distance from Donald Trump this year and nearly unseated Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) in 2014, confirmed more than a year ago that he intended to seek the executive mansion.
But as the 2016 presidential race dominated most of the political headlines in this swing state, his gubernatorial efforts remained mostly below the radar and under the auspices of a political action committee.
On Monday, as he announced the Ed Gillespie for Governor committee and the campaign website EdforVirginia.com, he used language clearly intended to leave the divisive presidential race behind.
“I will be a governor for all Virginians, and I will take our campaign to all Virginians,” Gillespie said in a written statement. “I look forward to putting forward an innovative policy agenda based on our shared conservative principles, and taking our message of economic growth and upward mobility to every corner of the Commonwealth and every voter.”
Gillespie is a political operative, former chairman of the Republican National Committee and one-time counselor to then-President George W. Bush. He faces three rivals for his party’s nomination: Rep. Rob Wittman; Corey A. Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors; and state Sen. Frank Wagner of Virginia Beach.
In an about-face expected to favor moderate contenders, the party’s State Central Committee in August narrowly voted to pick its nominee in a statewide primary instead of at a convention, a forum that favors conservative candidates.
The primary, which will take place in June, will be a first test of how the Republican Party moves forward following Trump’s unexpected presidential victory. The four GOP contenders had varied and complicated connections to Trump, who lost the state by five points but could have a sizable following among GOP primary voters.
Stewart initially served as Trump’s state chairman and sometimes was brasher than Trump. The campaign eventually fired him for participating in a protest outside of the Republican National Committee headquarters, where he said that the establishment was undermining the outsider nominee. Stewart has continued to support Trump, but some campaign leaders have been harshly critical of him.
At the other extreme was Gillespie, who got on board only after Trump locked up the nomination and kept the nominee at arm’s length. He stumped with Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, but never appeared with Trump. Wittman and Wagner fell in between, belatedly backing Trump but showing up at his rallies and lending their names to his state leadership team.
On the Democratic side, Lt. Gov. Ralph S. Northam is the only candidate running to succeed term-limited Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D). Northam is a pediatric neurologist, Virginia Military Institute graduate, Gulf War veteran and former state senator from the Eastern Shore.