One came touting a tax cut and a promise to unify a divided party and state. Another delivered dire warnings about “the ravages of criminal illegal immigrants.” The third unfurled a hefty legislative résumé.
The three Republicans vying to become Virginia’s next governor made starkly different pitches Saturday in vote-rich but deeply blue Fairfax County, giving more than 300 GOP activists a chance to size them up side by side less than three months before the June 13 primary.
In the end, the man with the tax plan — former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie — walked away the winner of the Fairfax GOP’s straw poll. But second-place finisher Corey Stewart got the most rousing response, with the audience repeatedly interrupting his broadside against illegal immigrants with chants of “Corey! Corey! Corey!” State Sen. Frank Wagner (Virginia Beach), who highlighted his devotion to transportation solutions as a veteran lawmaker, was a distant third.
Gillespie, who lives in Fairfax, won with 172 votes. Stewart, who recently lost to Gillespie in a straw poll in his own home county of Prince William, had 120. Wagner took just 16.
Though the results don’t count in the nominating contest, straw polls are thought to provide an early read on where activists would like to take the party. And just where this swing-state GOP is heading is a matter of intense interest following Donald Trump’s White House win.
Virginia is one of just two states — the other being New Jersey — with a governor’s race this year. So the primary contest could hint at whether, early in the Trump presidency, Republicans are still itching for outsiders or now pining for more conventional candidates.
The stakes are especially high in Virginia, where Republicans have not won a statewide election since 2009. While the GOP controls both chambers of the General Assembly, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has been able to thwart many Republican priorities on guns, abortion and other heated issues through executive orders and a record-busting use of his veto pen.
The commonwealth’s politics are especially tricky. Trump, after all, won Virginia’s primary but lost the state in November to Democrat Hillary Clinton. Republicans energized by Trump’s presidency might not get excited about an establishment figure such as Gillespie, a longtime political strategist who was a counselor to President George W. Bush. Yet the blunt-spoken Stewart, who led an immigration crackdown in Prince William and likes to brag that “I was Trump before Trump was Trump,” could turn off moderate Republicans and swing voters in the increasingly diverse state.
All three Republicans are vying to succeed McAuliffe, who is barred by the state constitution from succeeding himself. Two Democrats are contending for their party’s nomination: Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and former congressman Tom Perriello.
Before voting began at Robinson Secondary School, where Republicans running for attorney general and lieutenant governor also appeared, candidates spoke one after the other for seven minutes apiece, without interacting or taking questions. None of the candidates took direct swipes at rivals, but it was not hard to infer them at times.
“I will unify our party, and I will appeal to all Virginians, and I will be a governor for all Virginians,” said Gillespie, who went first. “We need that.”
Gillespie gave a nod to social issues, noting in quick succession that he would protect “innocent human life, religious freedom, and the individual right to keep and bear arms.” But he spent the bulk of his time talking about the need to improve the state’s economy, focusing on his chief solution: a 10 percent across-the-board tax cut.
Stewart, who went next, appeared one day after the state GOP Chairman John Whitbeck denounced him for describing Gillespie as a “cuckservative.” Whitbeck said that the insult, derived from the word “cuckold,” is a racist term popularized by white nationalists. Stewart said he was unaware of the racial overtones and meant it as a synonym for a “RINO,” or a “Republican In Name Only.”
On Saturday, Stewart held back on the insults but not much else, making a calculation that a Trump-style appeal would sell well to Republicans even in liberal-leaning Northern Virginia. From a brief nod to his wife and children, he dove directly into immigration.
“As a father, 10 years ago, I saw something so despicable: people who are not supposed to be in our country in the first place committing rapes and murders and other heinous crimes,” he said. “Some people say, ‘Why are you so mean against illegal aliens?’ Because they’re committing crimes against our families.”
Stewart often taunts Gillespie by calling him “Establishment Ed.” He refrained on Saturday but blasted establishment Republicans in general, saying there is little difference between them and establishment Democrats.
“If you want somebody who’s not going to back down to the press and the loony left, then I am your candidate,” he said.
All three candidates have spent their lives in and around politics. But Wagner, who went last, was the only one to explicitly tout the benefits of electing an insider. As a state Senate budget negotiator, he said, he knows state spending inside and out. As a senator who has pushed for transportation funding, he said, he knows how to make sure the state gets the most bang for every buck it spends on roads.
He also talked up his background as a Navy veteran and shipyard owner, saying that the latter made him acutely aware of the burdens of government regulations. “If you ever want to go buy a regulated industry, go buy a shipyard,” he said.
Some of the activists at the event said they could be happy with any of the three as governor.
Jane Lawler-Savitske of Springfield, who knitted a pink prayer shawl as she listened, said she’s known Gillespie and Stewart for many years. She praised Stewart’s support of an immigration crackdown in Prince William but said that it drove immigrants into Fairfax, causing an “influx of MS-13 gang members, all covered in tattoos and running sex-slave rings around the county.”
Still, Lawler-Savitske cast her ballot for Gillespie. “I think he acts more like a statesman,” she said.
Richard Rankin, a media specialist from Falls Church, was convinced Stewart would have a better shot.
“Mush does not sell anymore,” he said. “You want hot issues to motivate people. . . . This is how Trump won. He tapped into the emotion.”