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Opinion Doug Wilder’s prescription for the Virginia GOP

Carla Hyatt, 40, cast her ballot at Lake Anne Community Center on Nov. 3. Virginians are looking at the recent election results for clues to the 2021 state elections. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
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Virginia Republicans are getting some good advice about what they need to do, say and avoid as they regroup from the Nov. 3 elections and get ready for the 2021 statewide races.

Among those offering counsel: former Virginia governor and Richmond Mayor Doug Wilder (D). In a post-election interview, WRVA’s John Reid asked Wilder what advice he had for Virginia Republicans. Wilder said that if Republicans were “smart enough,” they might see they need to reach out and engage on what he called “people’s issues” — a “fair shake” on jobs, assistance, education and more.

It’s difficult to see any Virginia Republican following this advice, at least in the near future. Rather than looking to reach out, too many GOP officials are circling the wagons, spouting bizarre theories about the presidential vote while swearing loyalty to President Trump.

Granted, these are the loudest voices, not necessarily the most numerous. One is the voice of Sen. Amanda F. Chase (R-Chesterfield), who is (so far) the only declared candidate for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. Other candidates will enter that race — not the least formidable of which is likely to be former House speaker Kirk Cox (Colonial Heights).

But as Cox knows all too well, the discordant voices are sometimes not just the loudest but also the best organized. He, and everyone else, witnessed that in the 2019 nomination battle between then-Del. Chris Peace and challenger Scott Wyatt.

The issue dividing them was Medicaid expansion. Peace voted for it in 2018, becoming one of a handful of Republicans who crossed the aisle to give Gov. Ralph Northam (D) an early and very significant policy victory.

Peace’s public preening and Wyatt’s promise to “never waver” on conservative principles helped fuel a surprisingly nasty race that became a kind of proxy fight between Cox and his Senate counterpart, then-Senate majority leader Tommy Norment. Peace lost, and Wyatt went to the House.

The loudest voices were the most organized and, in that nominating contest at least, successful. They were decidedly unsuccessful at holding back the Democratic wave that swept Republicans out of power in the General Assembly and handed Democrats trifecta control of state government for the first since Wilder was governor.

The lesson for candidates like Cox: Be prepared (and whatever you do, don’t quote Cicero unless your real aim is to be president of the GOP’s Latin Club).

Candidates like Chase may seem too outlandish to mount a serious statewide bid, but experience and election results tell a different story. There’s a market for what Chase and her ilk are pushing. If we need another reminder of that, we need look no further than 2018 and the Republican Senate nominee that year, Corey A. Stewart.

Stewart was a disaster of a candidate — too extreme even for Trump, at least for while (Trump later endorsed Stewart’s bid against incumbent Sen. Tim Kaine). Kaine went on to defeat Stewart 57-41 percent in the general election. The stench of that defeat still clings to Virginia Republicans.

Wilder may have offered Republicans a way to overcome some of those past defeats and lingering resentments. But how does a Republican offer a “fair shake” to those reeling from economic dislocation and avoid charges of being a RINO, a socialist or worse?

They could adapt Wilder’s message — yes, we’ll make sure you get a fair shake from government (and keep its other hand from picking your pocket). We’ll also respect your privacy, your dignity and your rights.

Wilder said the people are looking for leadership — and for something more than the pervasive “we’re good and the other guys are bad” message. It begins with extending a hand, listening to what people have to say and taking those concerns to heart.

Read more:

Norman Leahy: Virginia Democrats are riding high, but the laws of political gravity will always apply

David Daley: Virginia Democrats are playing a dangerous game with redistricting

Norman Leahy: Virginia Republicans aren’t completely out of the picture

Mark J. Rozell: Virginia voters face a new election season, and it starts today

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