In the first statewide race since the GOP lost the White House and the Senate, Virginia's race for governor suggests that at this moment, former President Trump's influence is still strong among state Republicans.
The declared candidates have so far largely embraced Mr. Trump's rhetoric and policies with an eye toward winning the state GOP convention in May, even if doing so makes it more difficult to appeal to moderate voters in the November general election. Republicans have not won a statewide election in Virginia in over a decade, since 2009.
Former hedge fund investor Glenn Youngkin and entrepreneur Pete Snyder, who ran for lieutenant governor in 2013, lead the GOP field in campaign ad spending. Former Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox and state Senator Amanda Chase are the only candidates with experience serving in Virginia government.
Deciding how their nominee would be chosen has already been a headache for candidates and the Virginia Republican State Central Committee.
After months of internal debate over holding a statewide primary versus a convention, an unsuccessful lawsuit by Chase and a botched plan to hold it at Liberty University, the committee decided in March to hold an unassembled convention across 37 locations. It'll be held on May 8, will utilize ranked-choice voting and will require a candidate to win a majority of the vote to be the nominee.
All the GOP candidates are tapping into fatigue around the Democrats' handling of COVID-19 and the economy, specifically pointing to the state's slowness in fully reopening schools.
Democratic Governor Ralph Northam has called on all schools to start some form of in-person learning by Monday, though Republicans argue that five days of in-person learning should already be happening.
"This election is all going to be about one-party Democratic control and overreach," Cox told CBS News, adding that even after schools open, closures will continue to be an issue in the fall because students have so much catching up to do.
Republicans will also target Democrats for lagging vaccination rates. The state struggled with distributing vaccinations early on but has improved its systems; it ranked fourth in the percentage of vaccines administered as of mid-March.
While Mr. Trump's pet issues, like immigration and the U.S. approach to China, have been raised by some campaigns, candidates have also seized on Mr. Trump's debunked idea of an election that was "stolen" from him.
President Biden won Virginia, which has voted Democratic in presidential races since 2008, by more than 450,000 votes. Northam cannot run for reelection because the state bans consecutive terms by governors.
Youngkin is tapping into doubts about the outcome of the 2020 election with his "Election Integrity Taskforce" that calls, in part, for more observers and voting machine audits. Snyder has released a similar policy plan, and has said he wants "NFL-style scouting reports" on election officials for the November election.
"President Biden is our president. He was inaugurated," Youngkin said when asked if he trusts the 2020 election results. "I do think that process improvements go and push out doubt."
Chase, who wears her "Trump in heels" moniker with pride and attended the "Stop the steal" rally on January 6, believes the 2020 election was "stolen" as a result of COVID-19. The "guardrails [were] taken off," she said.
But Denver Riggleman, a former Virginia congressman who lost his seat in a GOP convention primary last summer, said any candidate's messaging on election integrity "is based on bullsh*t."
"'Election integrity' is a cover term for 'Stop the Steal.' 'Stop the Steal' is a cover term for QAnon. It's based on a real conspiratorial grift that's caused a lot of damage," said Riggleman, who is still considering running for governor as an independent.
A poll by Christopher Newport University found 61% of Republicans believe Mr. Biden did not win legitimately.
Quentin Kidd, the dean of Arts and Sciences at Christopher Newport University, said the embrace of Mr. Trump and his debunked claims of massive voter fraud is the result of a candidate like Chase pushing the field to the right, and of an "echo chamber" occupied by GOP candidates and the base.
"Election integrity is the number one issue to the base. And in a race like this one, that's all you're really talking to," added Virginia Republican strategist David Alvarez.
Kidd predicted Cox or Snyder would win the nomination, but said whoever it is will have a problem appealing to voters statewide after chasing the base on the right to win the convention.
"The question is are Republicans in those competitive states willing to move away from Trumpism enough to be competitive? Or are they going to double down on Trumpism, and in my mind, really hurt themselves in the general?" he said.
Republican candidates have made former Democrat Governor and candidate Terry McAuliffe their main target for the general. Democrats hold their gubernatorial primary in June.
To Chase, a convention process requiring citizens to apply to be delegates in order to vote, will prevent the party from fully tapping Mr. Trump's base by November.
"If we're going to win a statewide election, we need more buy-in of our candidates, not just from the party elites," she said. "The Bush Republicans, the Cheney Republicans, they need to recognize that the people are awake and it's a new day. It's time that they understand they're here to stay and embrace them. We're not going away."
She, too, is still considering a run as a third-party candidate, out of anger with a convention process she says is already rigged. "Let's see what happens," Chase responded.
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