Delegates registered to vote in Saturday’s chaotic and unpredictable Republican nominating convention will choose a gubernatorial nominee without the input of the biggest force in Republican politics: Donald Trump.
The former president has been eager to wade into electoral battles now that he is out of office and boost those loyal to him in Republican primary races. He endorsed Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks, who is campaigning for an open Senate seat in 2022. He pledged to campaign against Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski. And he has encouraged former football player Herschel Walker, now a Texas resident, to move back to his home state of Georgia and run for Senate in 2022.
But despite having a connection to the state in the form of a Trump golf course in Northern Virginia and a winery outside of Charlottesville, Trump declined to wade into the Virginia Republican gubernatorial fight.
“I know the president looks forward to supporting the Republican nominee,” Trump senior adviser Jason Miller told the Washington Examiner.
Lack of direction from Trump has added to the unpredictable and chaotic nature of the race, making it hard to put Virginia’s off-year election in its traditional role as a barometer of the Republican Party’s ideological direction after a presidential election.
The top four candidates in the seven-candidate field are Amanda Chase, a second-term state senator; Kirk Cox, a 30-year state delegate and former state House speaker; Pete Snyder, an entrepreneur and former lieutenant governor candidate; and Glenn Youngkin, the former co-CEO of the Carlyle Group private equity firm and a first-time candidate.
The 53,500 registered delegates will vote for a nominee by ranked-choice ballot in order to simulate voting rounds in the “unassembled” pandemic-era convention, meaning second- and third-choice picks could decide the outcome of the race. Fights over the process and last-minute changes to the system have consumed the campaigns’ energy, and final results, which will be counted by hand, will not be known for days.
Attack ads and mailers from newly formed political action committees whose funders will not be known until long after the nominee is decided, such as the Commonwealth Conservative Fund and the Patriot Leadership Trust, added to frustration for the candidates.
For firebrand candidate Chase (the most headline-grabbing and controversial candidate in the race, often described as “Trump in heels”), a lack of endorsement has not been because of a lack of trying.
While other candidates were scrambling to meet as many delegates as possible during the second to last weekend before the convention, Chase traveled to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida to attend a House Freedom Fund Dinner, where she gave Trump a fist-bump and her business card.
Speaking to the Washington Examiner on Tuesday, Chase remained hopeful that “he has my number, he could call it any moment,” adding that she was also in communication with former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows. “I know he is watching Virginia. He’s watching the race.”
Chase, who was the first Republican to enter the race in February 2020, questioned how loyal her opponents were to the former president and theorized that they waited to announce their candidacy until after the 2020 election was settled because “they figured if President Trump was still the president, that they couldn’t win.”
Snyder’s list of top endorsements suggests a closeness to Trumpworld, including Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the former White House press secretary and now Trump-endorsed Arkansas gubernatorial candidate for governor of Arkansas; Ken Cuccinelli, a former deputy secretary of Homeland Security and Virginia attorney general; and former Trump administration Customs and Border Protection head Mark Morgan.
“He didn’t start supporting the president when it was politically convenient,” Sanders said while stumping for Snyder at a campaign event on Wednesday, the Dispatch reported. “He’s not looking to do things because he feels like they’re politically convenient, but because they were out of conviction of what is right. And that is exactly what we need in this state to lead as the next governor.”
Cox’s endorsements include former Virginia Govs. George Allen and Bob McDonnell, Virginia Rep. Morgan Griffith, and a slew of his colleagues in the Virginia House of Delegates and state Senate.
Youngkin, meanwhile, has a similarity to Trump in his personal biography: an outsider wealthy businessman and first-time candidate. He scored an endorsement from Trump loyalist Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, as well as Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt.
Cruz, stumping for Youngkin in the campaign’s final days, focused on electability and how a Republican win in Virginia can set the tone for President Joe Biden’s administration: “This is both a privilege and responsibility that Virginia has, being an off-cycle election,” he said. “Y’all are the first to have the opportunity to speak and to say to the American people, ‘This is crazytown.’”
Part of the reason that Trump could be sitting the race out is that the field of candidates does not lend itself to a clear choice for him, and backing a candidate in an unpredictable process who does not win the nomination hurts his own reputation. Business Insider reported this week that advisers to Trump say he is wary of backing a loser, particularly one who does not win the general election.
Republicans have not won a statewide race in blue-trending Virginia since 2009, and while some are optimistic about their 2021 chances, most analysts expect the governorship to stay in Democratic hands.
Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who is running for a second term after a one-term break because the Virginia state constitution prohibits the governor from holding consecutive terms, is the front-runner to win the Democratic nomination. Democrats are holding a traditional primary on June 8, a month after the Republicans choose their candidate.