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Va. Republicans pick convention over primary to navigate Trumpism in 2021 governor’s race

Supporters of President Trump stand next to protesters outside the Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Va., on Nov. 8. The state Republican Party is hoping for a win in the 2021 elections, but it’s grappling with the legacy of Trumpism in the state. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)

RICHMOND — Virginia Republican leaders decided Saturday to pick the party's 2021 nominee for governor at a convention instead of in a statewide primary, a controversial decision that led a Trump-style contender to declare she'll drop out and run as an independent instead.

The GOP's State Central Committee — some spooked by the notion that state Sen. Amanda F. Chase (R-Chesterfield) might snag the party nod in a primary — approved the nomination method in a virtual Facebook meeting after about five hours of debate and parliamentary gymnastics.

Chase had long threatened to run as an independent if the party opted for a convention, and after the vote, she confirmed she will go through with that plan.

"The dysfunctional [party] leadership picked a method of nomination that does not allow the majority of people to participate," Chase said in a phone interview from rural Augusta County, where she was campaigning at a gun show. "I will now run as an independent against their candidate who is picked in a convention. . . . But the Republican Party will be the one that split the vote, not Amanda Chase."

Independent bids are typically long shots in Virginia, but some Republicans fear that Chase, a flamboyant figure who at a summer rally paired an elephant-patterned skirt with an AR-15, could pull away enough votes from the GOP nominee to hand the Executive Mansion to the Democrats.

The decision to hold a convention pleased some Republicans, who repeated unfounded allegations of voter fraud and said they no longer trusted government-run primaries. But the choice drew fire from another Republican mulling a run, outgoing Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-Va.), who has criticized the party for failing to call out conspiracy theories and has been flirting with an independent bid. On Twitter, he called the state GOP "a raging dumpster fire."

The choice between a nominating convention or primary is a perennial source of debate within the party, which hasn't won a statewide race since 2009 and has long endured tension between its moderate and conservative wings. Wrangling over the decision was more intense this time, at a moment of opportunity and peril. Republicans see 2021 as their best chance in years to reverse their losing streak — but they will have to wrestle with Trumpism to do it.

One of just two states (along with New Jersey) to pick a governor the year after the presidential election, Virginia has a habit of rebelling against the party in the White House. By Election Day 2021, President-elect Joe Biden will have been in power nearly a year — and Republicans are hoping the so-called “Virginia curse” will work in their favor as the state elects a governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. All 100 seats in the House of Delegates also will be on the ballot.

“When a Democrat is in the White House, Virginia Republicans get bullish, because history shows that’s when the Republicans have the best chance to take back the governor’s mansion,” said Richard Cullen, a former Republican state attorney general and former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia.

That sense of opportunity means an unusually large pack of Republicans are eyeing the Executive Mansion. And the sheer size of the potential field could complicate how the party contends with Trumpism, which is expected to remain its most animating and problematic force long after President Trump’s term ends.

Two are officially in the race: Chase and Del. Kirk Cox (Colonial Heights), the former speaker of the House of Delegates.

Five others are actively exploring bids: Riggleman; Northern Virginia businessman Pete Snyder, who is expected to formally announce soon; former Carlyle Group co-chief executive Glenn Youngkin; state Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr. (Augusta); and Charles “Bill” Carrico, a retired state trooper and former state senator from Grayson County, in the state’s far southwest.

Trump won Virginia’s 2016 presidential primary with just under 35 percent of the vote, but lost the general election here by five points. This year, he lost the state by 10 points. And in between, Democrats flipped three congressional seats plus the state House and Senate in blue waves widely seen as rebukes of the Republican president.

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While toxic to swing voters in the suburbs, especially in populous Northern Virginia, Trump remains highly popular with the Republican base. That puts the Virginia GOP in a pickle as it chooses its nominee in June, say Republicans and Democrats alike.

“In order to win the [Republican] Party nomination, you’ve got to appeal to the Trumpian right — but in order to win the general, you can’t lose Fairfax [County] by 36 points,” said Jared Leopold, a strategist for one of three Democrats officially running for governor, state Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan (Richmond).

The other two Democrats formally in the race are Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Del. Jennifer D. Carroll Foy (Prince William). Former governor Terry McAuliffe, who defied the Virginia curse by winning in 2013 while fellow Democrat Barack Obama was in office as president, is widely expected to seek a second term. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) is prohibited by the state constitution from seeking back-to-back terms.

Former Republican governor George Allen said the party can best navigate those tricky politics by pursuing “kitchen table” issues, such as education and jobs, that have appeal across the aisle. A softer style, he said, wouldn’t hurt either.

“Most Republicans will not defend President Trump’s manners, but they love what he’s done on taxes, on energy, reasonable regulation, strong national defense, standing up to China and the judges he’s nominated,” Allen said.

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Some Republicans have been openly worrying about Chase, the candidate who draws the most comparisons to Trump’s unorthodox style. They fear that in a large field, she could emerge as the GOP nominee, alienating swing voters in the general election and dooming the party’s chances up and down the ballot.

Chase, a senator since 2016, has drawn rebukes from her own party leaders for cursing out a Capitol Police officer over a parking spot and claiming on Facebook that Virginia Democrats “hate white people.” Chase appeared at a gun rights rally in July with “boogaloo boys,” a far-right anti-government group pushing for a second civil war. (Chase said she didn’t know who was in the crowd.)

“I know a lot of people say I’m Trump in heels, and I’ve embraced it,” said Chase, who was a home-schooling mom when she got into politics and touts the criticism from fellow Republicans as proof that she’s shaking up the establishment in both parties. “Republicans keep talking about how they want to win the suburbs. I am the suburbs. And suburban women are sometimes a little bit sassy.”

With Trump-style bravado, suburban state senator alienates her own party

Cox, a former high school civics teacher and baseball coach who has served 30 years in the House, mostly tries to sidestep the polarizing national issues Chase plays up. He says his mantra — “practical solutions to everyday issues” — appeals to independents and Democrats as well as the blue-collar voters Trump brought into the party.

“When you knock on a working-class family’s door and you ask them what’s on their mind, it’s not what the pundits on TV are saying,” he said, adding that K-12 schools and more affordable higher education are more important to them.

Cox has tried to thread the needle when it comes to Trump. Where Chase has led “Stop the Steal” rallies — alleging, without evidence, voter fraud in Virginia — Cox has held off on commenting on the presidential election results. He said he would wait until the electoral college votes in mid-December, an approach that has drawn criticism from Democrats including Del. Marcus B. Simon (D-Fairfax), who tweeted that Cox and state party leadership have failed to push back on Chase’s “nonsense.”

Cox did not comment on the nomination method, saying it was not his place as a candidate to put his “thumb on the scale.” But he criticized Chase for her vow to run as an independent.

“Amanda Chase’s antics have long grown more than tiresome,” he said in a written statement. “Her threat to run as an independent is based solely on the fact that she knows principled, conservative Republicans will never tolerate the demagogue she has become.”

But some of Chase’s critics think she has a good shot at the nomination, regardless of the method.

That anxiety dominated Saturday’s meeting, which was streamed live on the party’s Facebook page. Conventions, typically day-long events with multiple rounds of voting, are more likely to favor far-right candidates because often, only the most hardcore party activists are willing to travel across the state to participate.

But the politics of the convention vs. primary choice were scrambled this year. Chase, who might be expected to fare well at a convention, said she feared it would be rigged by party leaders out to undermine her.

Meanwhile, some Republicans who typically favor primaries but oppose Chase voted for a convention because they doubted that she could garner the required majority vote — 50 percent plus one. In a primary, she could win with a plurality.

Chase’s name did not come up during the committee meeting, but some members voiced fears about a weak candidate eking out a win in a crowded primary with perhaps 35 percent of the vote. Mike Ginsberg, the committee member who led the push for the convention, spoke almost apologetically for flipping his long-held pro-primary stance.

With a weak nominee in the fall, he warned, “I see us heading straight for an iceberg.”