The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Virginia’s gubernatorial race is winnable for Republicans — if they pick someone electable

State Rep. Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) responds to a question during a GOP gubernatorial candidate forum hosted by the College Republicans at Liberty University. (Kendall Warner/AP)

Six months ago, Joe Biden became the first Democratic presidential nominee to carry Chesterfield County since Harry S. Truman. Republicans have not won a statewide election in Virginia since 2009, and the transformation of the suburban county south of Richmond tells the story as well as anywhere. If the GOP is to escape the wilderness, the party must prevail again in places like Chesterfield.

Virginia Republicans will pick their nominee for governor on Saturday through a convention that will offer an early gauge of how long they’ll stay out in the cold. This is a winnable race for Republicans — if they pick someone electable. But such rational behavior is not a given in this moment, as reflected by the expected purge of Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney from the House Republican leadership.

To underscore the possibility that Republicans could win the governor’s race, consider that only once since 1973 has the party that won the White House went on to also win the Virginia governorship the following year. Terry McAuliffe broke this pendulum-swinging tradition when he was narrowly elected in 2013, and if the likely Democratic nominee wins back the job this year, it will be proof that Virginia really has changed from purple to blue.

As it happens, two leading candidates in the crowded GOP field both represent Chesterfield County in the General Assembly. But they are stylistic opposites, and the differences between them encapsulate the broader choices facing Republicans.

Kirk Cox, a former high school civics teacher who was speaker of the House of Delegates until Democrats took control last year, is a taciturn pragmatist and traditional conservative who emphasizes that he represents the bluest district held by a Republican.

Amanda F. Chase, a state senator who calls herself “Trump in heels,” praised the Jan. 6 insurrectionists as “patriots” and was forced to sit in a plexiglass box during this year’s session because she refused to wear a mask. After Derek Chauvin’s conviction for murdering George Floyd, Chase said the verdict “makes me sick.”

In a bid to thwart Chase, the state’s GOP establishment maneuvered to have the nominee selected in an unusual, mostly drive-through, convention, rather than a higher-turnout primary. To dilute the power of die-hard activists, they pushed to have several voting locations, instead of the original plan to have delegates drive to Liberty University in the most conservative part of the state. More than 53,000 party regulars have signed up to vote, with ranked-choice balloting that injects another layer of uncertainty into the race.

In this off-year contest between governing and flame-throwing, no issue reflects the tension more than the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Chase has repeatedly slammed Cox for compromising with Gov. Ralph Northam (D) in 2018 to make government health insurance available to more than 400,000 low-income residents. The two other leading contenders for the GOP nod, wealthy business executives Glenn Youngkin and Pete Snyder, have also blasted Medicaid expansion.

Mailers and commercials from dark-money groups have been attacking Cox as the “lead architect” of Medicaid expansion. This is false. He came around reluctantly, amid pressure from members of his own caucus who represented high-poverty, rural districts, along with suburban legislators who bristled that the issue was being used as a cudgel against them.

Cox argues that he decided to negotiate, rather than get rolled, after realizing Democrats had enough Republican votes to grow Medicaid without him. He takes credit for inserting a “work requirement” for benefits and “a kill switch” to roll back the program if the federal government stops funding 90 percent of the expansion. When pressed during interviews and debates on Medicaid, Cox quickly pivots to emphasize how much of the Democratic agenda he blocked as speaker.

Despite his defense, at least part of why Cox went along with the expansion was to safeguard his own reelection prospects in a seat he’s held since 1990 — but with increasingly slim victories. In 2009, he ran unopposed. In 2019, he held off a Democratic challenger by 1,296 votes.

The anti-Trump backlash in the suburbs, seen nationally over the past four years, supercharged preexisting trends in Chesterfield County. The last three governor’s races reflected that shift: Northam carried Chesterfield by a few hundred ballots in 2017, with 49.7 percent of the vote. Four years earlier, McAuliffe garnered just 40.8 percent. In 2009, Democratic nominee Creigh Deeds mustered only 33.5 percent.

Deeds lost to Bob McDonnell, the last Republican to win statewide, who is now a Cox supporter. Chase’s endorsers include Trump allies Michael Flynn and Roger Stone.

Virginia Republicans have reacted to a decade of losses by moving further outside the mainstream. Part of Chesterfield is in the congressional district that was represented by Eric Cantor until the then-House majority leader lost a 2014 primary challenge. The tea partyer who beat him lost four years later to Abigail Spanberger, the Democratic congresswoman who now holds the seat.

Virginia Republicans have a chance to break the fever this weekend. Don’t hold your breath.

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