MADISON, Va (Reuters) - Virginia will elect a new governor this November, one of the first state-wide races in the post-Trump era.
Judging from the crowded field of seven Republican hopefuls vying for that seat, former President Donald Trump still looms large and could well determine the outcome.
Most have not disavowed the false narrative put out by Trump that he lost to Democrat Joe Biden because of voter fraud. Candidate Amanda Chase, one of the early favorites for the May 8 Republican nominating contest, has gone a step further. Following the ex-president’s November loss, she encouraged him in a Facebook post to impose martial law to cling to power. She cheered the insurrectionists who stormed the U.S. capital on Jan. 6 as “patriots.”
It’s a playbook that could spell trouble for Republican hopes in Virginia, experts and pollsters say. The former battleground state in recent years has elected a Democratic governor, a Democratic-controlled state legislature and two Democratic U.S. senators, largely on the strength of college-educated, suburban voters.
Fealty to Trump is emerging as a litmus test for Republican hopefuls looking to appeal to the former president’s devoted base to win next month’s nominating battle. But conspiracy theories about election fraud are likely to turn off many moderate voters needed to win the Nov. 2 general election, said Frank Luntz, a veteran Republican pollster.
“This is probably the most significant political conundrum I have ever seen,” said Luntz, who called Virginia a test case for the future of the Republican Party.
Virginia’s off-year contests are traditionally viewed as a harbinger for national political trends in the wake of a presidential election. The Republican campaigns here signal that the election-fraud myth is now a key plank for party hopefuls, said Al Cardenas, a veteran Republican strategist.
“‘The Big Lie’ will continue to be perpetuated,” he said.
According to a Reuters/Ipsos national opinion poll conducted March 30-31, 55% of Republicans believe that Biden’s win was “the result of illegal voting or election rigging,” and just 27% said they believe he won legitimately.
Trump lost Virginia by 10 points in November, doubling his 5-point defeat in 2016 in large part because his scorched-earth politics repelled moderate, suburban and female voters.
Under state law, incumbent Democratic Governor Ralph Northam can’t run for a second, consecutive term. Several Democrats are looking to replace him, including Terry McAuliffe, who held the office from 2014 to 2018.
McAuliffe said he found it “disgusting and despicable” that his Republican rivals continue pushing the false claim that Biden’s election was illegitimate. He believes they’ll pay a price in November with Virginia voters, a good number of whom work for the federal government and were outraged by the bloodshed unleashed by the pro-Trump mob on Jan. 6.
“It’s Looney Tunes on the other side,” McAuliffe said. “They are all trying to out-Trump each other.”
Pollster Luntz said the ascendance of Chase -- a twice-elected state senator who is leading the Republican field with nearly 20% support, two recent polls show -- spells particular danger for the party.
The Virginia state Senate censured Chase in January in a bipartisan vote over what it called her “conduct unbecoming of a Senator” including her “patriots” comment. The censure resolution also noted that Chase said Democratic state Senator Jennifer McClellan, who is Black and also running for governor, could not represent all Virginians because she helps lead the Black Caucus.
McClellan, in a March 16 statement, said “Chase’s bigoted comments have no place in Virginia politics.”
Chase, 51, who has been dubbed “Trump in heels,” told a crowd at a recent campaign event that her censure was punishment for standing up for the former president. A resident of suburban Chesterfield County near the state capital and a former supervisor at the Federal Reserve of Richmond, she contends that her appeal is broad enough to win a statewide contest.
“I am from the suburbs. And I win in the suburbs. I am a professional, young, woman candidate,” Chase told Reuters in an interview. She said her Republican doubters are “establishment elite” who continue to support losers.
Rich Anderson, chairman of the Republican Party in Virginia, declined to comment on Chase when asked if he had concerns about her ability to win a general election.
“I’ve worked very hard to keep my thumb off the scale,” he said.
‘HANGOVER FROM TRUMP’
In recent polls conducted by YouGov and Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia, Chase leads her rivals by almost double-digit margins heading into next month’s race for the Republican Party’s nomination. She has 19% and 17% support respectively in those polls, with her nearest rivals polling at 10%. The contest remains fluid: Both polls showed 55% of self-identified Republicans are still undecided.
After months of infighting over the methods of selecting their nominees for November, the state Republican Party’s governing board last month opted this year to replace its traditional primary election with a convention due to what it said were COVID-19 concerns. Voters will be able to cast ballots at 37 drive-up locations across the state.
Another change is a move to so-called rank-choice voting, in which voters cast ballots for multiple candidates by their first choice, second choice and so on. If no candidate secures more than 50% of the vote on the first ballot, the candidate in last place is eliminated and their ballots redistributed based on their voters’ second-choice picks. The process repeats until a nominee emerges with over 50% support.
Chase had called for a statewide primary. She told Reuters she believed this year’s system had been rigged against her, because in a primary she would need just a plurality of votes to win.
John March, a spokesman for the state Republican Party, would not comment on her accusation.
Interviews with a dozen Virginians who intend to vote in November revealed sharp divisions over Chase.
In the suburban enclave of Alexandria in northern Virginia, communications specialist Steve Fong, 53, said he finds the stolen-election narrative offensive, and Chase too extreme. “I could not even consider voting for her,” he said.
Mary Slaughter, 65, who runs a landscaping business in the rural community of Natural Bridge, said the presidential election was “clearly stolen” and that she would vote for Chase in November if she becomes the Republican nominee. “She’s a female Donald Trump,” Slaughter said approvingly.
Other Republican hopefuls for governor have likewise put voter fraud at the forefront of their campaigns.
Glenn Youngkin, a former hedge fund executive, is calling for an “election integrity task force.” Businessman Pete Snyder is running an ad promising to “stop liberals from rigging the system.” Peter Doran, a former think tank CEO, touts a “Voter Integrity Plan” on his website.
The campaigns did not respond to questions asking if their candidate believed Biden was the legitimate winner of November’s election.
The one Republican candidate who has declared Biden the winner is Kirk Cox, the former Virginia House speaker who lost his majority in 2019 in large part due to Trump’s unpopularity in the suburbs.
Cox said he does not believe his stance will damage him in next month’s nominating fight, citing his long conservative record of defending gun rights and opposing abortion.
The ranked-choice system opens the door for candidates like Cox to win if they receive more second-choice votes than Chase.
But any Republican faces an uphill battle to win back the suburban voters who left the party on Trump’s watch, says Bob Holsworth, a non-partisan analyst of Virginia politics.
“There is a large hangover from the Trump era that is not going to be erased here in Virginia,” Holsworth said.
Reporting by Tim Reid. Additional reporting by Chris Kahn in New York. Editing by Soyoung Kim and Marla Dickerson
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