HOT SPRINGS, Va. — U.S. Rep. Robert J. Wittman (R) jumped into the 2017 race for Virginia governor, spreading the word at a GOP retreat as state party heavyweights Ken Cuccinelli II and Ed Gillespie also were wooing potential supporters.
Gillespie, a longtime Republican strategist who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 2014, declared his candidacy for governor in October. Cuccinelli, who lost the 2013 gubernatorial race, has been publicly mulling a bid but still has not decided on his plans.
Wittman’s entrance into the race makes it clear that Gillespie will face serious competition for the nomination, even if Cuccinelli does not enter the race.
Hundreds of Virginia Republicans spent the weekend at the Homestead, taking stock of their party in a state that will be key to picking the next president in about a year.
But much of the talk centered on 2017, when Virginia chooses its next governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.
The potential nomination fight played out in rival hotel hospitality suites Friday night — Gillespie’s fruit cobbler vs. Cuccinelli’s cannoli. And Wittman, who had a suite of his own, let it be known on Saturday that he would run.
“Obviously our focus is on winning in 2016, but I am preparing for 2017,” Wittman said in an interview.
Gillespie already is raising money. “I’ve made clear I would like to be our nominee,” said Gillespie, who raised more than $400,000 last week in the first two fundraisers of his campaign. “I believe I’d be a good servant for my fellow Virginians and put forth policies that would help turn things around. And we need to turn things around.”
Asked if he was going to run, Cuccinelli said, “I’d love to, but a lot of things have to fall into place, and we’ll see.” He plans to make a decision after the presidential election.
“Probably all these folks agree with me that the future of Western civilization hangs in the balance next year, and Virginia is ground zero as one of the swing states,” he said. “So I’m going to put a lot of effort into that.”
They were appearing at an annual gathering that the Virginia GOP calls the Republican Advance, the name intended to signal that the party is not in “retreat.” Some years, that upbeat billing is wishful thinking. The party has not won a statewide office since 2009.
But the crowd this time generally felt like things were going the party’s way, despite the unsettled status of the Republican presidential nominating contest and the potential for a battle between Gillespie, Wittman, Cuccinelli and perhaps others for the gubernatorial nod.
Many said they would be happy with any of the candidates. Gillespie and Cuccinelli made strong, if ultimately unsuccessful, runs in recent statewide races. Last year, Gillespie came within a whisker of unseating Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), considered a giant of modern Virginia politics. In 2013, Cuccinelli narrowly lost the governor’s race to Democrat Terry McAuliffe, despite being vastly outspent.
Even so, there was some fretting about the future of the party.
One example is in former House majority leader Eric Cantor’s old district. The conservative upstart who toppled Cantor could face a challenge from an establishment figure, a battle royal which could deepen fractures in the party at a time when unity is needed for upcoming races.
The event at the Omni Homestead Resort, festooned with Christmas lights and a giant tree, drew a record crowd of 730 and raised $250,000 for the party, state GOP Chairman John Whitbeck said. A Fauquier County farmer and a college Republican dressed in stars-and-stripes khakis mixed with white-haired legislators and executives in business suits.
“The only way the party’s reflective of our views is if we show up,” said Kishore Thota, 32, a member of the millennial group Next Gen GOP, which supports same-sex marriage and wants the party to address pragmatic issues facing younger voters, such as student debt.
Former lieutenant governor John Hager summed up what united them all. “My number one thing is very simple: I want to beat Hillary Clinton,” he said.
The event gave higher-office hopefuls a chance to get budding campaigns off the ground.
Del. Robert B. Bell (R-Albemarle), the only declared candidate for attorney general, had a suite. So did Northern Virginia technology entrepreneur Pete Snyder, who used a Rebel Alliance theme to lure attendees to a “Star Wars” bar, which boasted a small bowling alley, arcade games and cardboard cutouts of Princess Leia and Han Solo. Snyder is often mentioned as a potential candidate for governor or lieutenant governor.
Sen. Bryce E. Reeves (R-Spotsylvania), another potential lieutenant governor candidate, reeled crowds into his suite with a “Bryce is Right” slogan in kitschy neon colors.
Del. Scott W. Taylor (R-Virginia Beach), a former Navy SEAL and frequent guest on Fox News, stood by a table piled with copies of his new book, “Trust Betrayed: Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and the Selling Out of America’s National Security.”
Taylor said he is “leaning very strongly” toward running for lieutenant governor and recently set up Frog PAC, as a play on frogman, the term for elite Navy SEAL divers.
Also working the crowd were state Sen. Thomas A. Garrett Jr. (R-Louisa), who is said to be mulling a run for governor, and Northern Virginia businessman Danny Vargas, a potential contender for lieutenant governor.
“2016 is really taking a back seat to 2017,” said Wes Fisher, 21, a senior at James Madison University who was trying to read the tea leaves at the various down-ticket suites.
But presidential politics also was well represented. State Sen. Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun) flew the flag for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) in one suite, while the campaign of former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina hosted another.
Thomas Cranmer, an member of the Tea Party Patriots in Northern Virginia, sported a Trump sticker and said he applauds the celebrity billionaire’s rhetoric about Muslims.
“I’ve seen what the reality is, and they’re willing to die,” said Cranmer, who said he studied Arabic, Farsi and Hindi while in the Foreign Service. “This is a rogue regime that threatens us. They want to kill us.”
Activists more concerned about local issues were atwitter about a potential challenger to Rep. Dave Brat, an economics professor who tapped into a wave of frustration with business-centric candidates and defeated Cantor in 2014.
Those same establishment forces welcome the possible candidacy of Mike Wade, who has been sheriff in the Richmond suburb of Henrico County for 16 years. Cantor’s longtime chief of staff, Kristi Way, ran Wade’s first election.
Wade, who did not attend the event, said in a phone interview that he is “strongly considering” challenging Brat next year and touted “real-life experiences” that make him qualified for Congress.
The seat may be more in play than usual because of pending shifts in Virginia’s congressional district boundaries. A court-
ordered mapmaker has offered a plan that, if finalized, would replace the Brat stronghold of Hanover County with the more moderate Powhatan County, perhaps benefiting an establishment candidate.
In that vein, the Virginia Conservative Network — a group formed by Cantor allies to embrace party faithful who feel alienated by the rise of the tea-party influenced Conservative Fellowship within the state party — held a competing event on what party leaders see as their turf this weekend.
Whitbeck, the state party chairman, reacted bitterly to what he perceived as a slight, calling the reception “exclusionary” and a “shadow event.”
“The VCN event that is planned at the Homestead tonight is not affiliated with the RPV Advance in any way,” Whitbeck said on Facebook. “I am disappointed that this group would hold an event alongside what is supposed to be our largest Republican event of the year.”