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Virginia Republicans' search for a standard-bearer is a key test of post-Trump GOP in upcoming governor's race

Posted February 1, 2021 1:21 p.m. EST

— As Republicans search for a path forward following Donald Trump's defeat and the party's loss of power in Washington, many are looking across the Potomac River to Virginia, where voters will select a new governor this November.

Well before the 2022 midterms or 2024 presidential primaries, the Virginia governor's race will be a first real test for a post-Trump GOP -- not only of whether Republicans can start to win back a state they once reliably held, but in who the party picks as its nominee.

With just three months before the state party's planned nominating convention, attention has fallen to Amanda Chase, a pro-Trump state senator who spoke at the "Stop the Steal" rally in Washington on January 6. She later called those who stormed the Capitol "patriots" and has insisted the 2020 election was stolen.

Chase, who announced her candidacy for governor in February 2020, was censured last week by a bipartisan group of her senate colleagues after her subsequent comments were not deemed sufficiently conciliatory. In a phone interview with CNN Saturday evening, Chase called the censure a "politically motivated hit job" to hobble her campaign and filed a civil-rights complaint Monday in federal court to overturn it.

More than anyone in Virginia, Chase is an avatar for the party's pro-Trump wing.

"Many of the grassroots have said to me, 'You're just like Trump, and we like President Trump,' " Chase told CNN.

Whether Virginia Republicans coalesce around Chase or flock to a less strident alternative will say a lot about where the power lies between the GOP's pro-Trump wing and what remains of its establishment. As it has in the past, Virginia's off-cycle governor's race could also provide an important indicator for upcoming midterm and presidential races, particularly in how suburban voters behave.

"Virginia was always the canary in the coal mine," said Jerry Kilgore, the former state attorney general and the GOP nominee for governor in 2005. "We were that state that signaled to the rest of the country what the midterms were going to be like."

Recently, that signal hasn't been very strong for Republicans. The last time a GOP candidate won statewide in Virginia was in 2009, when Bob McDonnell was elected governor. Both Virginia's US senators, Democrats Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, had relatively easy reelection campaigns in 2018 and 2020. And since the 2019 election, both houses of the state legislature have been held by the Democrats.

"The problem with the Republicans right now is they're in the post-Trump reality, and they haven't quite figured out what that means," said Chris Saxman, a former Republican state delegate who writes a political newsletter. "They don't know where they're going."

There are pockets of pro-Trump sentiment, particularly in the rural parts of the state. Rep. Bob Good, a newly elected Republican congressman and Trump ally, defeated incumbent Denver Riggleman in the 2020 GOP primary by running to Riggleman's right.

But in both 2016 and 2020, Trump carried just 44% of the vote in Virginia, a sign that the former President had a hard ceiling of support where previous Republican nominees did a few points better. So while Trumpism remains potent for some Virginia Republicans, others are hoping to move past the former President to regain their footing in the Old Dominion.

Chase, however, says it's not time for Republicans to turn back the clock.

"This is a new game. This is not the same political climate in the '80s and '90s. This is a very different world," she said. "People, they don't trust the government. They don't trust the election results. They want to get a fighter in there."

A chance to regain ground

Despite Republicans' recent struggles, some see signs for optimism in Virginia. The top three Democratic office holders in the state have all faced some form of personal scandal in the past three years, including two sexual assault allegations against the current Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Gov. Ralph Northam's blackface yearbook photo that surfaced in 2019. Fairfax has denied the allegations, while Northam first apologized for the photo and then later said he did not believe the person in blackface was him.

The state has also drawn criticism for the job it's done administering Covid vaccines -- at one point during January, according to CDC data, Virginia ranked the lowest in the nation in the percentage of its vaccine supply that had been administered, though that number has since improved.

"Republicans have a great chance to win statewide this year," said Tucker Martin, a veteran GOP strategist in Richmond and a former spokesman for McDonnell. "What we don't know now is what Trump has done to the environment. Has he permanently hurt the brand here or can Republicans get a fair shot to introduce themselves to voters again without his baggage hanging around?"

A strong showing for the Virginia GOP in 2021 depends in large part on whether the party's association with Trump will remain a barrier to entry for independent voters. That will likely show up most in suburban and exurban areas Richmond, Hampton Roads, and Northern Virginia -- all places where Democrats have started winning regularly in state and federal elections.

"Republicans have a lot of work to do. They have to be able to reach the suburbs with a message that's a winning message. They haven't been able to do that in several years now," said Kilgore. "Those issues have to be issues that are based on the suburb's issues, which would be education, public safety, dealing with Covid."

The Virginia Republican Party plans to hold its nominating convention on May 1, though it's not settled whether that will be virtual or in-person. Democrats will hold a traditional primary election five weeks later on June 8.

Many Republicans around the state are concerned that nominating Chase could derail the party's rebranding effort and instead double-down on the Trump-like politics that have hurt the GOP in the suburbs. Some of them worry that's the path Republicans are currently on.

"Right now she's the leader, because she's the leader in name ID," said Saxman of Chase. "People like the fact that she fights."

A gun show in Shenandoah

Chase was buoyant and confident Saturday night as she drove home from a gun show in Fisherville, in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley.

Speaking to CNN on the phone from a car full of campaign volunteers, she said the Second Amendment is an energizing issue for Republicans -- and particularly, for her campaign.

"People were just, like, cheering," said Chase, who gave a speech at the gun show. "I think we are reenergizing the Republican Party."

She revels in being known as a "firebrand" and "politically incorrect," while also decrying what she calls a "good-ol'-boy network" of Republican lawmakers in Richmond. Chase was expelled from the Chesterfield County Republican committee in 2019 for supporting the opponent of the Republican sheriff, and two months later announced she would no longer be caucusing with the GOP in the state Senate.

"I'm an educated professional woman who doesn't take crap off of these Republican men who have dominated the Republican Party for decades," she said told CNN.

Chase argued she's best equipped to bring in new voters to the Republican Party, including Democrats angry about their own party's leftward turn on issues like guns and taking down Confederate monuments.

"Democrats are leaving the Democratic party because the Democratic party are taking down their statues, their history," she said.

And contra the conventional wisdom that suburban women hold more socially liberal views on both gun control and issues of racial equity, Chase says she's unique among Republicans because of her gender.

"While I'm not into identity politics, I am the first female to ever run and seek the Republican nomination ever," she told CNN. "I think that's going to really bring in a lot of the suburban moms."

Others argue her extreme style -- Chase told CNN pandemic-related restrictions have made Virginia like "a communist country" -- are exactly what turns off swing voters in Northern Virginia and other suburbs.

"She's not the right person to lead the party," said Kilgore. "She's bombastic at times. She says things that shouldn't be said. She leads us in the wrong direction."

But to Chase, that's exactly why she's going to win the GOP nomination.

"They like it. They like that I'm bombastic," she said. "I'm a sassy suburbanite."

Rivals are holding back

Kirk Cox, a member of the House of Delegates for more than three decades and its speaker from 2018 to 2020, told CNN he won't win the nomination by "trashing" his opponents and instead insisted he's focused on his legislative experience delivering on Republican goals.

Pete Snyder, who launched his campaign last week, said he was "very comfortable" in his lane as a conservative businessman and outsider.

(A spokesman for another Republican candidate, Glenn Youngkin, did not respond to requests for comment for this story.)

The hope from Republicans opposed to Chase is that she will have little support outside her core base -- and that the convention's balloting process means an alternative with broader support is likely to emerge.

"There are so many people who are anti-Chase. There is a very dedicated, core, pro-Chase element of the party, but she doesn't pick up anybody on the second ballot," said one Virginia Republican.

Saxman, however, says conventions can be unpredictable and that Chase has captured the hearts of the party faithful.

"She's engaging with them. She's fighting with them," he said.

Opening schools

At the moment, the best way Republicans feel they can win back the suburbs and with them, Virginia, is to focus on reopening public schools to in-student learning.

Chase says she wants every school in the state to provide full-time, in-school instruction. Snyder says he is in regular contact with the various parent-driven "Open" movements in school districts across the state, and the issue was front-and-center in the video he released announcing his campaign.

"My campaign is focused on opening up schools," he told CNN.

Cox, a retired public-school teacher, pointed out he had been criticizing since last summer what he calls a lack of leadership from Northam and Virginia Democrats on responsible school reopenings.

Saxman says that there is a big opportunity for the GOP if it can get out of its own way. He noted that the front page of a recent issue of the Richmond Times-Dispatch featured an article about Northam's efforts to catch Virginia up after weeks of ranking near the bottom among states for vaccine distribution -- the sort of story Republicans might want to exploit.

The problem? The lead story at the top of the Times-Dispatch about the Virginia GOP's most visible member: "Virginia Senate censures Chase."

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