The president believes Virginia “is in play” in 2020. He intends to campaign here, we’re told (third-hand), taking advantage of perceived cracks in the local Democratic facade to bring relief — and victory — to the long-suffering Virginia GOP.
Assuming, of course, the locals prove they are worthy of President Trump’s time and make a strong showing in this November’s legislative elections.
That’s asking a lot of local Republicans, who have watched Virginia Democrats take full advantage of Trump as a foil and an organizing tool.
But, as I wrote last week, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s apparent reprieve of the president gave Republicans legitimate reason to believe they might be able to stop Virginia’s decade-long march toward becoming a Democratic stronghold.
Does that mean they are prepared for regular presidential appearances in the near future?
Of course not.
While the president might not be heading for a Nixonian fall (just yet), that doesn’t mean Virginia Republicans want to be seen onstage with him at a campaign event. Virginians still don’t approve of Trump, regardless of what Mueller says.
Republicans, not being utterly oblivious to this reality, prefer the preternaturally bland Vice President Pence to make the rounds, help them raise money and rally the base.
Not that the low-energy Pence was able to make a difference for Trump on his numerous stops in the commonwealth in the 2016 presidential campaign. Nor did Pence’s October stopover for three Republican congressional candidates make a noticeable difference in those races.
But Pence’s style is a good fit with the current GOP narrative, which itself is a shrewd approach to November’s off-off year elections.
Republicans are selling themselves as the responsible adults in state government. They were passing bills, cutting taxes and generally making life a little better for folks. And Democrats?
The question is whether the Virginia GOP can take advantage of the Democrats’ problems and turn them into lasting electoral gains.
According to Politico, “there is deep skepticism” from Democrats and some Republicans that the commonwealth is actually within Trump’s grasp.
History supports the skeptics more than it does the Trumpian optimists. Democrats have deep electoral roots in populous Northern Virginia and are in the process of developing a hold on Richmond’s vote-rich (and once reliably Republican) suburbs.
Even with the scandal and uncertainty surrounding Gov. Ralph Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney general Mark R. Herring now, those advantages remain solid, particularly in statewide races.
But down-ballot is much less clear.
Random chance denied Democrats control of the House of Delegates in 2017. Republicans, caught entirely unprepared for that electoral wave, won’t be in the same spot this year.
A helping hand from Pence, coupled with the steady-hand campaign narrative, are two legs of the stool. The third, and more intriguing, is the GOP’s diversity push. It may seem like a gimmick or worse, cynical pandering. But the hard truth is that Virginia Republicans have to get a little bit more rainbow coalition-y in their policy outlook and political approach if they hope to have a future.
If this inclusivity becomes the GOP norm rather than a short-term exception, it could test the strength of the Democrats’ political roots in the state’s population centers.
But that change has to take hold now, with the off-off year General Assembly races. The GOP that emerges will determine whether Virginia is in play for 2020 and beyond.
Everybody will be watching.