RICHMOND — Don’t look for Tom Davis in Cleveland. The former Republican congressman from Virginia, who attended the past six GOP conventions, will be rooting for the home team at Nationals Park this week, not cheering on Donald Trump at Quicken Loans Arena.
“The Dodgers are here for a three-game series. I’m going to the Nats games,” said Davis, who was Virginia chairman of Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s failed presidential bid. “I just don’t feel it this year.”
As a crucial swing state, Virginia was well represented at the Republican National Convention four years ago. Most of the commonwealth’s GOP stars made their way to Tampa to witness Mitt Romney’s nomination, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
It will be a different story this time, as Trump becomes the GOP’s standard bearer.
Former governor George Allen, who backed Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida in this spring’s primary, will be camping out West. Only one of Virginia’s eight Republican members of the U.S. House will attend for sure: Rep. Rob Wittman, who as a 2017 candidate for Virginia governor needs to hobnob with state activists and out-of-state donors. He got behind Trump only when the billionaire’s last rival dropped out, releasing a statement that managed not to use the name “Trump.”
Republican strategist Ed Gillespie, another 2017 gubernatorial contender and half-hearted Trump supporter, will also attend, said an aide who made it sound as if Gillespie’s focus would not be on the nominee.
“Yes, Ed will be there next week for a couple of days to spend time with the Virginia delegation,” said Chris Leavitt, executive director of Gillespie’s political action committee.
All the no-shows and hold-your-nose shows are hardly flattering to Trump, whose inflammatory rhetoric about Muslims, Mexicans and other subjects has turned off many.
But some Trump supporters are looking beyond the snubs to something promising: a party in mid-revolution.
“It’s unlike any other presidential election year because the establishment is [ticked] off that the power has returned to the grass roots,” said Corey A. Stewart, yet another contender for governor and chairman of Trump’s Virginia campaign. “I believe that the party is in the process of remaking itself . . . into a party that is more responsive to the concerns of middle America.”
Backhanded compliment or not, the absences read like a who’s who of Virginia politics.
At least four of Virginia’s eight Republican representatives in the House — Dave Brat, H. Morgan Griffith, Barbara Comstock and Scott Rigell — are skipping the convention. Spokesmen for three others — J. Randy Forbes, Bob Goodlatte and Robert Hurt — would not respond to inquiries about whether they are attending.
Some fear that Trump’s ties could be toxic to their own political futures. That appears to be the case with Comstock, a freshman seeking reelection in a Northern Virginia swing district that has been hostile to the real estate mogul turned reality TV star.
Even some Virginia businesses that would normally attend the convention to make contacts are staying away.
“If the nominee were 16 of the 17 people that ran, I would be there,” said Will Ritter, a longtime Romney aide who leads Poolhouse, a political and corporate ad agency in Richmond. “But I’m not going to go and participate in a champagne toast for Donald Trump.”
In neighboring Maryland, a reliably blue state in presidential years, several top Republicans are picking an annual crab feast on the state’s Eastern Shore over Trump. Among them are Gov. Larry Hogan, Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford and Maryland House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga (Baltimore County), who is running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Barbara A. Mikulski (D).
Hogan, only the second Republican in nearly 50 years to become a Maryland governor, has said he does not plan to endorse or vote for Trump.
But Maryland’s lone Republican congressman, Andy Harris, will serve as a voting delegate in Cleveland. Both states will have a handful of legislators in that role.
Perhaps the most prominent Virginia Republican in attendance will be former attorney general Ken Cuccinelli II, who sees his mission as trying to steer the party rightward.
An ardent supporter of Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), Cuccinelli arrived a week early to try to change party rules to boost prospects for a conservative, grass-roots win in 2020. As for his attendance at the convention proper, Cuccinelli framed it more as an obligation than a confetti-strewn grand old party.
“I’m Virginia delegation chair,” he said. “It’s not like I could stay home.”
There is a flipside to Republicans’ boycotting the convention or attending with reluctance, and it is Stewart, Trump’s Virginia chairman. The chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, who led a crackdown on illegal immigrants there, could not be a more enthusiastic booster. But in Cleveland, he will be on the outside looking in.
Back in the spring, when Cruz supporters led by Cuccinelli still thought they had a shot at installing the senator from Texas at a brokered convention, Stewart lost a bid to become a delegate.
“During a fight between the Trump and Cruz camps, my name was removed,” Stewart said. “My wife and I are going as guests.”
He is not even sure if he will be allowed on the convention floor.
Other prominent Republicans denied delegate slots: former governor Jim Gilmore, a 2016 presidential candidate who never got any traction; former state attorney general Jerry Kilgore, finance chairman for both the state party and for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s Virginia campaign; and former lieutenant governor John Hager, who supported former Florida governor Jeb Bush and whose son is married to a daughter of former president George W. Bush.
“They were hoping for a coup. I was just hoping to just get selected as a delegate,” Hager said.
Hager does not miss many opportunities to rub elbows with fellow politicos. More than a decade after leaving office, he remains a regular at General Assembly sessions and other political functions around the state.
“This will be the first one I’ve missed since 1980,” he said.
Gilmore and Kilgore have found ways to be around the action if not in the thick of things.
Kilgore, a partner in the Richmond legal and lobbying powerhouse McGuireWoods, will travel to Cleveland for a reception his firm is hosting at the Cleveland Browns’ stadium.
Late last week, Gilmore traveled to Cleveland to participate in a panel discussion about the convention sponsored by a conservative group. There, he preached a message of Republican unity.
“I am not a ‘Never Trump’ person like Romney or Bush or any of those people,” he said in an interview earlier in the week. “I’m trying to hold the party together.”
But when his speech was over, he returned home to Richmond.
“There’s not a role for me to play,” Gilmore said. “I have constructive things I can do here.”
Josh Hicks contributed to this report.