RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Donald Trump’s surprise victory has upended Virginia politics, dimming the star power of the state’s top Democrats and disrupting the already-in-progress 2017 gubernatorial race, which is likely to be one of the nation’s most closely watched elections next year.
A Hillary Clinton victory would have given a giant boost to top Democrats in Virginia. Running mate Tim Kaine was set to be the next vice president, longtime Clinton friend Gov. Terry McAuliffe was going to be the best-connected governor in the country, and many expected Rep. Bobby Scott to be Virginia’s first black senator as Kaine’s senate replacement.
Clinton’s victory in Virginia, the only one in a southern state, may bode well for future Democratic candidates, but for now it’s largely a hollow win. Kaine and Scott will remain part of the minority in their respective chambers, and McAuliffe will spend his last year in office without a direct line to the White House.
But the biggest turmoil from a Trump win may be within the state GOP, where gubernatorial candidates were already battling to claim Trump’s supporters.
Virginia’s gubernatorial race, with a general election in November 2017, will test the power of Trump’s popularity during the first months of his presidency. Next year’s only other significant contests are races for New Jersey governor and New York City mayor.
Trump supporter Flux Neo, an attorney in Virginia’s deeply red southwest corner, said just how “Trumpy” Republicans were before Tuesday will be a key litmus test for future GOP contenders.
“If you were anti-Trump, you’re functionally dead to us as a candidate,” said Neo. Even lukewarm support of Trump will be problematic, he added.
Corey Stewart, one of Trump’s earliest and most brash supporters in Virginia, said Tuesday’s results have propelled him to the front of the GOP field for governor. He called it a high-risk, high-reward bet that is now paying off.
“It was a Hail Mary pass. If this guy wins, I’m going to win. If he goes down in flames - and there were several times when I thought that might happen - I was going to go down in flames,” said Stewart.
Stewart, who is chairman of the Board of Supervisors in Prince William County, said he’ll campaign on a promise of implementing Trump’s policies in the state. He said that includes aggressive measures to deport undocumented immigrants.
Complicating matters for Stewart is the fact that he was fired as chairman of the Trump campaign in Virginia during the final weeks of the election, after he organized an unauthorized pro-Trump protest outside the Republican National Committee’s headquarters. But Stewart said he remains close to the Trump family, and his firing by political operatives won’t diminish his support from the Trump faithful.
Competing against Stewart for the GOP nomination is former RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie, a polished political insider who endorsed Trump, but with muted enthusiasm.
Gillespie has broad support from the party’s establishment, but his style and background may make it difficult for him to connect with many of Trump’s voters. For instance, Gillespie has been an outspoken advocate of expanding the GOP base to include more minorities, while Trump’s hardline stance on immigration alienated many minority groups with his harsh rhetoric.
On Wednesday, Gillespie’s aides tried to play up his support for Trump’s candidacy - noting that Gillespie attended rallies with Trump running mate Mike Pence - while attacking Stewart as an opportunistic “career politician.”
Conservative radio host John Fredericks, who succeeded Stewart as Trump’s campaign chairman in Virginia, said both men will have to win over skeptical Trump supporters. He said Stewart tried to use his platform on the Trump campaign for self-promotion, and Gillespie made a “calculated political decision” to support Trump at arm’s length.
“It backfired on him,” Fredericks said.
Republicans Rep. Rob Wittman and state Sen. Frank Wagner also are running. Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam is the only Democratic candidate. Virginia governors are barred from serving consecutive terms.
In the end, Northam may be best positioned to benefit from Trump’s victory, as the Old Dominion’s electorate typically votes against the president’s party. Whether that history helps Northam now depends on the one of the most unpredictable political figures in modern history.
“Historically, the people who lose the presidential election end up being the most motivated to win in Virginia a year later,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg. “Everything will depend on how Trump does in his first year.”
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