- Donald Trump hasn’t endorsed anyone in Virginia’s GOP gubernatorial race scheduled for Saturday.
- Aides say he is staying away because he doesn’t want to pick someone who could lose to Democrats.
- His absence adds to the chaos in a voting system that’s far more confusing than the usual primary.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Donald Trump is playing kingmaker in Republican primary races from Alaska to Florida.
But the former president has been notably absent in Virginia, a state home to both a Trump golf course and a Trump winery and where the first marquee race in the US since he left the White House is set to take place this weekend.
Trump aides say there’s a reason he is staying far away from the Old Dominion, where Joe Biden won by double digits in November. He mainly doesn’t want to get tagged a loser if his pick goes on to get clobbered this fall by Democrats.
Still, Trump’s absence is making for significant chaos as Republicans get ready to go to the polls Saturday to pick from a wide-open field that includes a millionaire first-timer, a woman who bills herself as “Trump in heels,” and an establishment player backed by the former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
“There’s a sorting here that is basically going to be true believers,” said former Rep. Tom Davis, who served seven terms in Congress representing a suburban Washington, DC, district.
Virginia’s current MAGA-size endorsement hole also offers a poignant look into a post-Trump party that is shaping up to be bonkers, Virginia Republicans tell Insider.
That’s because only the most die-hard conservatives are expected to show up and make their top picks during the state’s convention, which will be scattered across 39 polling stations in the commonwealth. There’s also a complicated delegate-based, ranked-choice voting process that party leaders cobbled together instead of a traditional one-vote-per-person primary, which has even the sharpest strategists’ heads spinning.
GOP operatives used various phrases like “frustration,” “confusion,” and “uncertainty” when Insider asked about Virginia’s voting procedures.
“Anybody who tells you they know what is happening is full of s—,” said one former Trump White House official keeping tabs on the state race.
Looking for signs of a GOP wave in 2022
There are bigger stakes too coming out of Virginia for Trump, Biden, Democrats, and the GOP.
Politicians and pundits for decades have looked to the so-called off-year elections in Virginia and nearby New Jersey that come immediately after a presidential race to gauge where the country is headed.
Republican sweeps in both of those states in 2009 foretold the tea-party wave during the 2010 midterms, when the GOP won control of the US House and crippled President Barack Obama’s first-term agenda.
More recently, Democratic wins in 2017 paved the way for the blue wave of 2018 and culminated in Trump’s back-to-back impeachments.
Now comes this month’s Republican race in Virginia to nominate a gubernatorial candidate who will oppose the eventual Democratic candidate. November’s general-election winner is expected to give a useful glimpse into the mood of voters as Biden and Democrats defend their narrow House and Senate majorities in 2022.
Every Republican whom Insider spoke with for this story said off-year elections in the state tended to go against whoever’s in the Oval Office. That’s what makes 2021 a historic opportunity for the GOP to end single-party Democratic rule in Virginia’s capital of Richmond and reclaim the governor’s mansion after a decade-long drought.
“We have traditionally gone the other direction,” Davis said. “We use this election to send a message.”
‘Trump in heels’
The top contenders for the GOP nomination with just days to go include state Sen. Amanda Chase, former Virginia House Speaker Kirk Cox, the one-time lieutenant governor hopeful Pete Snyder, and the millionaire first-timer Glenn Youngkin.
Chase, the self-proclaimed “Trump in heels” who’s been telling anyone who’ll listen that the 2021 Republican nominating contest has been “rigged” against her, recently trekked down to Mar-a-Lago in search of Trump’s seal of approval.
She couldn’t get a private meeting, according to one Trump advisor. That hasn’t stopped her from making Trumpy moves, such as threatening to sandbag the Republican nominee in Virginia by running as an independent if she doesn’t win the nomination.
Snyder has blended Republican establishment support with the backing of top Trump operatives, including Huckabee Sanders, the former president’s flack now running her own race for governor of Arkansas. She was expected to headline a fundraiser for Snyder this week. He’s also scored endorsements from Trump acolytes like the Virginia politician turned Trump-administration official Ken Cuccinelli.
Youngkin is claiming the mantle of conservative champion, but some operatives say that may be a dated approach in a party still dominated by fealty to Trump. He’s making do with a fawning video featuring Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas drawing parallels between “his friend” and the Bedminster, New Jersey-bound former president. Cruz is also joining Youngkin this week for a two-day, seven-stop trip across the state.
Endorsements galore, except Virginia
While Trump hasn’t been shy about doling out plaudits to his most vocal defenders in the House and the Senate — including Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, and the Senate hopeful Mo Brooks of Alabama, even though those elections aren’t happening till 2022 — the former president has yet to weigh in on the Virginia GOP’s future.
It’s a striking decision considering what even Trump’s own operatives are saying publicly about the political power of the former president.
“Polling continually shows that when President Trump endorses, it almost always clears the field and puts his America First candidate on the path to victory,” the campaign consultant John McLaughlin said April 20 on behalf of his still-sulking, grudge-holding client.
Having Trump sit out the state’s nomination fight, according to a former Republican gubernatorial official, has been “just one more thing, sort of keeping the process wide open.”
Trump’s tight-knit team overseeing his endorsements has advised him to stay out of the Virginia GOP contest, not just because of the grueling intraparty battling but also because the team is worried the Republican pick may lose in November, according to Trump advisors who spoke with Insider.
Republican Rep. Rob Wittman of Virginia told Insider via a spokesman that he was fine with radio silence from Trump — in this case. “Congressman Wittman believes we have a great field of candidates and sees the lack of a particular endorsement from President Trump as a positive reflection of the field as a whole,” the spokesman, Brandon Wear, wrote in an email.
Some anonymous political action committees have tried to fill the Trump-size void by bombarding the GOP faithful with attack ads assailing those they don’t like without revealing whom they’re working for.
Even the process for Republicans to pick a nominee in Virginia has been controversial and full of party operatives sniping at one another.
One longtime Republican strategist said the decision to go with a convention instead of a primary confirmed Chase’s suspicions that people were out to get her.
“If you had a primary the concern was you’re going to flip it to Amanda Chase because she could win with a plurality,” the GOP operative said of the mental gymnastics party leaders engaged in to block her out. “It’s parochial politics at its worst.”
Davis said moderate Republicans on the State Central Committee, a policy-setting group consisting of 49 members from Virginia’s 11 congressional districts, feared Chase would sweep the primary and then be “unelectable statewide.”
“So they opted to go to a convention with ranked-choice voting, figuring that would stop her,” he said of the political calculus. What they didn’t consider, Davis said, is that primary losses are disqualifying under party rules. Convention losses: not so much.
“If you lose a primary, you’re out. You can’t run in the general,” Davis said. “But if you lose a convention, you can still run as an independent. And Chase has indicated that if she’s not treated well, and particularly if a guy named Pete Snyder’s nominated, she’ll run as an independent.”
Going the third-party route would drag the fight out even further — at a time when Republican unity (see: Trump loyalty tests) is in short supply. Splintered voting among conservatives in Virginia’s November general election also all but guarantees Democrats would win the race and help a bit to ease concerns in party circles that a Trump-fueled Republican wave is coming in 2022 that will wipe away their majorities in both chambers of Congress.
Results could take days
Davis marveled at all the hoops party leaders are making Virginia GOP voters jump through to prove their allegiance, including mandates that they preregister as delegates and spend the better part of their Saturday snaking through a socially distant, drive-thru polling station.
The candidates also face obstacles like being forced to recruit their own armies of delegates who will indeed show up Saturday to vote.
“As Republicans, we don’t just preach voter suppression. We practice it on our own,” Davis quipped.
A former Virginia gubernatorial official panned party leaders for a bungled rollout that dragged on for months and featured embarrassing stumbles like Liberty University torpedoing a committee-approved “drive-in convention” the school never agreed to host.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty and frustration around how late the decisions were made about this method,” the GOP official told Insider.
Having already suffered through a “not clear or well-defined process,” the GOP official said voters should brace themselves for the ultimate nightmare: tabulating votes.
“The real question is will you get an accurate count? And will folks have confidence in the count?” the GOP official said. There’ll be ample opportunity for heads to explode as convention organizers attempt to marry jurisdictional votes weighted by GOP turnout in past elections to ranked-choice selections — calculations bound to involve “different fractions of delegate votes.”
“It’s not outside the realm of possibility that while it’ll take a while, you get an objectively verifiable number,” the GOP official said. If questions remain, the person said, “you can do an audit or a full recount.”
Davis predicted that it’d most likely take days to sort through how all the second-, third-, and fourth-place votes are reallocated if no one gets to 51% on the first try.
“The key is to have votes everywhere,” Davis said. “Not just perform well in big counties.”
There are also vulnerabilities in all the leading contenders, said Davis, the former Virginia GOP congressman who chaired an important House committee on government oversight.
Cox has the campaign infrastructure in place to theoretically string together numerous pockets of support, Davis said, but clearly not enough buzz to drown out the rest of the field.
“Kirk’s been around a little bit, and so he has an organization everywhere,” Davis said. “Doesn’t mean he wins. But it means that at least in some of these small counties he’ll be a competitor who should get through the first ballot.”
Chase’s greatest asset is that she’s got “a base that won’t quit” and a lane to herself. “There’s nothing to the right of her,” Davis said.
Snyder’s got some residual name recognition from his failed 2013 run for the GOP nomination to be Virginia lieutenant governor. But Davis said that bruising campaign also showed “he’s got some pretty sharp elbows” — which may explain the animosity coming at him from all sides.
“He’s not very popular among candidates that run against him,” Davis said. “But he’s very able, he’s scrambling, and he’s spending a lot of money.”
Marshaling resources don’t seem to be a problem for Youngkin either. Davis said the political neophyte had “unlimited money” and “a pretty professional team.”
What’s lacking is a compelling reason to send him to the executive mansion.
“He doesn’t really have a message except he’s a wealthy guy and he’s an outsider,” Davis said, adding that he told Youngkin directly that “a message beats a résumé.”