RICHMOND — Next year’s race for Virginia governor could be dominated by someone not on the ballot: Donald Trump.
Virginia Democrats hope to make the 2016 Republican presidential candidate a central theme in the 2017 governor’s race — a strategy the state party rolled out Tuesday with a new website, Trump4Gov.com.
“Virginia’s Gubernatorial Candidates are YUUGE Trump Supporters,” the site says.
The site has a photo of the Republican presidential nominee on top. Below that are pictures of all four GOP contenders for governor, along with supportive comments each has made about Trump.
The four are: Ed Gillespie, a political strategist and former counselor to then-President George W. Bush; Corey A. Stewart (At Large), chairman of the Prince William Board of
County Supervisors; state Sen. Frank W. Wagner (Virginia Beach); and Rep. Rob Wittman.
The four have not embraced Trump with equal fervor. But any association with Trump could pose complications in a swing state where polls show Democrat Hillary Clinton leading by double digits.
Stewart, who until recently served as Trump’s Virginia chairman, has been one of Trump’s most vocal defenders throughout a string of controversies. As many Republicans recoiled, Stewart defended Trump’s comments about a “Mexican” judge presiding over a fraud case against now-defunct Trump University. When The Washington Post uncovered a 2005 video of Trump bragging about groping women, Stewart said Trump had “acted like a frat boy, as a lot of guys do.”
Gillespie and Wittman got on board only after Trump locked up the nomination — and they did so with a palpable lack of enthusiasm. Gillespie offered a one-sentence statement that sounded resigned at best. Wittman’s confirmed he would vote for Trump without uttering the word “Trump.”
Both recently issued statements criticizing Trump for the groping video.
Last week, as Trump announced a statewide leadership team, Gillespie’s name was conspicuously absent. Wittman and Wagner were on the list.
Trump was not Wagner’s first choice. The senator had been state co-chairman for Gov. John Kasich of Ohio.
“When he didn’t win and the Trump campaign asked me to be part of his organization, I said yes,” Wagner said.
Wagner said he was not worried about being linked to Trump next year. He made no apologies for standing by the nominee of a party that he said stands for “less government, efficient taxes and less regulation.”
And he said that Democrats — who appear to be lining up behind Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam for governor — will have to defend ties to their own nominee.
“Both candidates are extremely controversial,” Wagner said. “I’ll make it all about Hillary.”