About a quarter of respondents say they haven’t yet formed an opinion.
While the Republican contest had been seen as a test for the future of the Republican Party in the wake of President Trump’s disruptive victory last fall, the race seems to be turning in a predictable direction.
Six in 10 likely Republican voters see Gillespie as the most electable in the November general election compared with his rivals. Gillespie has a huge cash advantage over his challengers for the nomination, with some $3.3 million available when campaign disclosures were filed March 31. Stewart had about $409,000 and Wagner about $178,000.
Stewart had been aiming to carry the Trump brand of subversive and filter-free politics to Virginia, but is struggling to gain momentum. Although he served last year as the Trump campaign's Virginia chairman — until being fired for defiance — Stewart has convinced only 14 percent of Republican likely voters that he would be best suited to support the president's policies, according to the poll, which was co-sponsored by The Post and George Mason University's Schar School of Policy and Government.
Gillespie is seen as the best Trump supporter of the three by 37 percent; Wagner is almost the same as Stewart, at 12 percent. Republican-leaning registered voters who “strongly approve” of Trump’s performance as president support Gillespie over Stewart by a wide 20-point margin, 35 to 15 percent.
Being supportive of Trump may not be a good thing, though, in a general election in the only Southern state that Trump lost last November. The president's approval rating among all Virginia residents is 36 percent, which is even lower than his national approval rating of 42 percent in a Washington Post-ABC News poll last month.
What’s more, while some 20 percent of Virginians strongly approve of President Trump’s job performance, 52 percent strongly disapprove.
The other factor that doesn’t seem to be working in Stewart’s favor is his energetic campaigning on the issue of preserving Confederate monuments and war memorials. Republican voters seem somewhat perplexed by the topic — 54 percent have no opinion on which candidate best represents their views.
Only 11 percent say they agree with Stewart.
“I like Corey just because there just doesn’t seem to be a gray area with where he stands,” said Darryl Updike, 56, of Bedford in southwest Virginia. He said it’s smart leadership to stake out an extreme position and then have wiggle room for compromise.
Others question why Stewart decided to spend so much time on the Civil War. The fixation on Confederate monuments “really turned me off,” said Jay Beckerman, 51, a federal employee who lives in Woodbridge. “I consider myself a conservative, but I don’t know that that’s one of the things we need to conserve,” he said.
Beckerman said he had been interested in Stewart, who is his county chairman, but now leans toward Gillespie. “I think name recognition and being seen as somewhat of a centrist is important in the general election, but I still want to pick a guy that has got some conservative values because I think that’s what Virginia needs to move the economy forward,” he said.
Overall, 26 percent of Republican voters say Gillespie does the best job of representing their views on the matter of Confederate statues. Gillespie has said he does not support relocating Confederate statues but believes the matter should be left up to individual localities.
Gillespie also has the edge in demographic groups and most regions of the state that had been aligned with Trump. Among Republican-leaning registered voters, 35 percent of whites who didn’t graduate from college favor Gillespie, with 14 percent for Stewart and 12 percent for Wagner. Republican men, women, those who identify as “very conservative,” old, young and middle-aged all favor Gillespie by significant margins — usually double either of the other two candidates’ support.
Russell Martin of Richmond, a moderate who has voted for both Democrats and Republicans, said he doesn’t know much about Wagner or Stewart and likes Gillespie’s stand on issues.
“I like some of his pro-business stuff as far as getting the economy going,” said Martin, a 32-year-old telephone lineman. “He just sounds focused on the economy-type stuff, like I heard him saying in one of the interviews about making sure we are creating jobs and having work.”
Southwest Virginia, which went most heavily for Trump last fall, also favors Gillespie, at 34 percent among Republican-leaning registered voters, compared with 12 percent for Stewart and 8 percent for Wagner. Northern Virginia Republicans favor Gillespie by an even wider margin, 41 percent to 12 percent for Stewart and 11 percent for Wagner.
The only region where another Republican comes within striking distance is Tidewater, where Wagner — who has represented the area in the General Assembly for 25 years — gets 26 percent to Gillespie’s 32 percent — a difference that is not statistically significant. Stewart is at 10 percent there.
Even there, though, voters are keeping an eye on who they think has the best chance of winning in November against a Democrat.
Peter Kane, of Virginia Beach, was initially leaning toward Wagner for the primary but shifted allegiances to Gillespie after concluding the longtime local lawmaker wasn’t likely to win.
“Although I’d like to see Frank Wagner at the top of the ticket, I just don’t think he has the name recognition in Northern Virginia and Richmond,” said Kane, a 61-year-old college professor. “He’s well known down here and has been in the Senate and House forever. But he just hasn’t gotten the word out like Gillespie has.”
Two Democrats are vying for their party's nomination in the June 13 primaries — Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and former congressman Tom Perriello.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) is prevented by the state constitution from seeking a second consecutive term. Virginia is just one of two states with gubernatorial contests this year — New Jersey is the other — and the race is being closely watched by the national parties as an early test of the political landscape in the Trump era.
The Washington Post-Schar School poll was conducted by telephone May 9-14 among a random sample of 1,602 adults in Virginia, including landline and cellphone respondents, with a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three points. The error margin is 4.5 points among Republican and Republican-leaning registered voters, and seven points among the sample of 264 Republican likely primary voters.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.