Denver Riggleman, center, in his 2017 gubernatorial campaign. Is he looking to 2021? (Julia Rendleman for The Washington Post)

Former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe’s decision not to join a Democratic presidential scrum he could not win has Virginia Republicans talking.

What if McAuliffe’s effort to help Democrats in the 2019 General Assembly elections is really his way of laying the groundwork for a 2021 gubernatorial comeback?

And even more important: Who is the likely gubernatorial contender on the GOP side?

Back-to-back Democratic sweeps of the state’s top three offices thinned the ranks of potential contenders considerably. The problems got worse when the 2017 wave devastated Republican ranks in the House of Delegates. Things got even worse in 2018, when voters sacked three GOP House incumbents.

There’s a real possibility all that bad news could be capped off with a 2019 loss of one or both legislative chambers, followed by what will be a challenging 2020 presidential election.

It looks grim — California Republican grim.

But the allure of statewide office will not stop the brave, the ambitious and the foolhardy from running. Maybe even winning.

Here’s a far-too-early look at some of the possible Republican gubernatorial candidates, beginning with those who might be tempted to run but should not.

George Allen. The former governor and U.S. senator made a comeback bid for office in 2012, losing the Senate election to Democrat Tim Kaine. Allen still has many fans, but after two statewide losses, it’s better for him, and he would likely agree, to observe from the sidelines.

Jim Gilmore. Allen’s successor as governor has made abortive runs for the presidency and waged an utterly forgettable 2008 Senate campaign against Democrat Mark R. Warner. Gilmore still drives Democrats to distraction, which is a plus. But his day has passed.

Ed Gillespie. A close loss to Warner in the 2014 Senate race set Gillespie up for a Warner-like gubernatorial run in 2017, which saw him swamped in that year’s wave election. Gillespie remains engaged in public policy, but he has no desire to become a candidate again.

Candidates who might make a good showing include:

Pete Snyder. He came within a whisker of being the GOP lieutenant governor nominee in 2013. He has kept a comparatively low profile since then, but he might find that being a good soldier through these many thin and trying years puts him in a strong position for 2021.

Rob Wittman. The 1st District congressman considered a gubernatorial run in 2017 but bowed out of the race to remain in the House. With a lot of work, he could run statewide without having to give up his (largely safe) House seat. The near certainty of being in Congress as long as he wants may convince him to stay put.

Barbara Comstock. The former 10th District congresswoman lost her reelection bid by a dozen percentage points and had to fend off a primary challenge before that. Her best opportunity for a statewide run was 2017, when she still had a winning record.

Scott Taylor. There are whispers the one-and-done 2nd District congressman might have designs on a statewide run. But as long as the criminal investigation into petition fraud remains open, any comeback effort is moot.

The most interesting names include:

Nick Freitas. The GOP Delegate lost a tough Senate nomination fight to Corey A. Stewart in 2018. But unlike Stewart, whose political future in Virginia is over, Freitas remains an interesting option. There have been rumors he would run against Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D) in the 7th Congressional District. But Republicans may be looking elsewhere for their candidate in that race. A 2021 gubernatorial bid might be Freitas’s best option.

Denver Riggleman. The freshman 5th District congressman was briefly a gubernatorial candidate in 2017. He has solid campaign experience now and will get more in 2020 — crucially, in raising money and running an effective campaign operation.

Again, all of this may seem way too early. However, would-be Republican statewide candidates are already testing the waters. They have to, because Democrats are already running.

Just ask McAuliffe.