Virginia state Senator Amanda Chase is the leading edge of the GOP’s worst nightmare: Trumpian extremists who are unelectable winning their party’s nomination. She is so anti-mask that she’d rather sit inside a plexiglass cube specially constructed for her when the Senate is in session. She attended the 1/6 rally and calls the rioters “patriots.” She believes the election was stolen and that President Trump should have invoked martial law. She calls herself “Trump in heels.”
If you’re a Trump supporter, what is there not to like? It’s the annoying reality that she can’t win an election outside of her gerrymandered district. “Nobody wants Chase as the gubernatorial nominee,” says Larry Sabato, longtime Virginia political forecaster. “Even the Trumpiest Republicans who led the (Virginia state) delegation, even they admit she’s a massive general election loser.”
And yet, Chase is leading the GOP field in the November Virginia governor’s race, the first major statewide election after the presidential election and therefore a leading indicator as to how effective former President Trump and his movement will be in controlling primary nominating contests. In an obvious bid to disadvantage Chase, state party officials have held firm in their decision to hold a nominating convention to choose their candidate, as opposed to a primary, which could favor Chase by bringing out the Trumpian grassroots.
Four years ago, when the party did hold a primary, Corey Stewart, a Trump admirer, came from 45 points behind to nearly win it against former RNC chairman Ed Gillespie on the strength of a sleeper issue, championing Confederate statues. He also gave away AR-15s as awards at his rallies, knowing it would garner him votes and publicity. Gillespie might have lost the general election to current Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam anyway, but Stewart didn’t help.
State party leaders prefer Delegate Kirk Cox, a former Speaker of the House of Delegates who was among a small group of Republicans who joined Democrats to pass Medicaid expansion in 2018 after opposing it for five years. “I think he’s sane, but he doesn’t express it,” says Sabato. At least, not after getting pilloried for conceding that Joe Biden had won the election. The GOP candidates get Trumpier by the minute, refusing to refute the big lie that Trump won.
The state party has gone through contortions to hold the line with a May 1 convention, voting four times in its favor, only to be contested by those who prefer a primary. Virginia leaves it up to the political parties to decide their nominating process and whether to hold a convention or a primary.
A quarter to a third of the state committee members support a primary, as do Chase and her allies, enough to repeatedly stall the final decision but not enough to overturn it. Assuming the convention holds, Chase is primed to say the election is rigged. With or without a primary, “Republicans are so conspiratorial and anti-Establishment, they will eat each other like piranhas if given the chance,” says Sabato.
A Republican hasn’t won statewide in Virginia since 2009, “so it’s been a long drought,” says Stephen Farnsworth, director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at Virginia’s Mary Washington University. He credits changing demographics from rural to suburban combined with “a huge negative reaction to Trump in the state, and that has created a catastrophic environment for Republicans running in the age of Trump in suburban districts.” It wasn’t that long ago that Republicans had a 2-to-1 majority in the House of Delegates. The next round of redistricting will give more power to the suburbs, “which is bad news for Republicans,” he says.
Poised to reap the gains is former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, who in 2013 beat the so-called “Virginia curse” where since 1977 the winner of the statehouse was from the party opposite to the one that just won the White House the year before. He’s now the favorite to win again in a state where governors can serve only one term at a time.
He’s only been out of office for four years and is credited with helping Democrats win their legislative majorities. He’s a tireless campaigner and a prolific fundraiser and in the most diverse Democratic field of candidates for statewide office in Virginia’s history, which includes three Black people and a white socialist, he appears to be doing a Biden—which translated means he’s an older white guy with lots of experience who can make government work.
“The irony is in this woke era, the likely matchup is two white guys,” says Quentin Kidd, a political scientist who directs the Wason Center on Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. Their poll created a stir last week when Chase topped the GOP field with 17 percent followed by Cox with 12 percent. “The oddity among the many oddities in the Trump era,” says Kidd, is what he calls “seat switching.” Republicans as recently as the last gubernatorial election argued for primaries, “and some of them have backed off because they are afraid of Amanda Chase. And the Trump wing, which we used to call the Tea Party, used to be in favor of a closed process.”
Adding to the oddities, the GOP’s closed process has a new wrinkle this time, which is essentially ranked choice voting, which Republicans typically oppose. In the May 1 convention, which will be held in multiple sites across the state, voters will be able to drive by and drop off their ballot with their vote ranked in order of preference 1 through 6. The expectation is Chase will win the first round with a plurality but when the votes of the losing candidates are distributed, Cox, as the more conventional cultural conservative, will likely gain enough support to get over 50 percent on the second or third round.
The four other candidates seen as also-rans could, of course, surprise. They include two wealthy businessmen who have already started airing television ads, a retired Army colonel, and a former think tank exec who wants to abolish the state income tax. They’re all positioning themselves as Trump acolytes, and to what end? “The new Lost Cause is Trump 2020 in Virginia,” says Kidd, whose polling found a 6-point drop in self-identification of Republicans after the election from the low 40s to the 36-35 range.
Virginia is for lovers, according to the state’s license plate, but Virginia doesn’t like Trump. He lost the state by 5 points in 2016, and 10 points in 2020. “Normally if you were on the Titanic, you’d fight to get on a lifeboat,” says Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson. “These folks are fighting over who is captain of the ship. Linking yourself to Trump is no way to navigate a winning coalition in Virginia.”