GALAX, Virginia – Republican gubernatorial candidate Kirk Cox was in a shaky diner answer for election security for a few minutes when Jan 6 resurfaced.
Did President Joe Biden win the election? Cox avoided answering the question directly on this recent event, despite having previously acknowledged that reality, the one GOP leader willing to do so.
Instead, he refocused on suggestions like the voter ID requirements, which are popular with many voters. But now Lin, a Trump supporter who asked the Biden question, had another. She wanted to know if he agreed to the Virginia Senate censoring one of its members, Amanda Chase, after calling the people who stormed the US Capitol that January day "patriots".
Did Cox support "free speech" for Chase, who is now one of Cox's competitors for the Republican nomination?
"I'm very much in favor of free speech," replied Cox.
"So you were against (the vote of no confidence)?" asked Lin, who supports Chase in the race. "I don't want to put words in your mouth, but I need a 'yes' or a 'no'."
That tight line on the 2020 election and rejection culture is one that Republicans had to dance to for months ahead of the GOP gubernatorial convention in Virginia on Saturday to woo voters.
The GOP has had a tough time nationwide in Virginia in recent years. Demographic change helped the state to become reliably democratic. The party's reaction – moving further and further to the right – has only exacerbated the problem. But Virginia couldn't be lost to the right kind of Republicans. At least not now.
Republicans will select their candidate in an "unassembled convention". Nearly 54,000 Republicans who have successfully applied to be a delegate can cast ballot papers at 39 drive-up locations in Virginia. It's a process that has created more than a few problems, including Chase, who claims the party chose a convent instead of a primary school to keep them from becoming a nominee. It can also take a few days for the results to be known – candidates have already expressed doubts about the race.
"It will make the Iowa congregation look like a well-oiled machine," said one Democratic agent with a touch of hopeful glee.
The candidates represent some of the avenues the GOP could take in Virginia
Virginia last picked a Republican in a nationwide election in 2009. Since then, the GOP has picked candidates who their own insiders say do not appeal to the state's growing suburban population. You must return to these communities for any hope of victory, says Miles Coleman, associate editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball at the Center for Politics.
"In the 2016 primaries, I always look at places where candidates like John Kasich and Marco Rubio do well against Trump: those areas have since moved more towards the Democrats – places like Loudon County, Hanover County, Chesterfield County." Said Coleman. "Maybe after Hillary (Clinton) and Biden are elected, these voters are still open to the right type of Republican."
But can they do that while making up the 44 percent of the state that voted for Trump?
The mix of competitors was instructive.
Chase, the self-described "Trump in Heels", has dominated national media headlines, saying things like Derek Chauvin's verdict made her "sick" because she was worried about how the cops would feel about it . And it's popular with the grassroots, at least according to a February poll and a more recent poll conducted by Democrats.
The hopeful businessman and former lieutenant governor Pete Snyder is almost as Trumpy, railing against the "awakened" liberal establishment and highlighting endorsements from figures like Ken Cuccinelli and Sheriff David Clarke.
Meanwhile, newcomer and former private equity group executive Glenn Youngkin has topped some recent straw polls with a well-funded campaign that ticks all the conservative culture warfare fields but meets all the criteria speaks on appeal for "Trump Republicans, Libertarians and Democrats" to win in November.
Cox, a delegate to Virginia House and a former spokesman for the panel, remains the establishment favorite. He advertises his know-how in the implementation of conservative guidelines and explains to Vox: "It is very important to have the experience to know how to govern the state and make good decisions."
Regardless of how the candidates position themselves, certain issues keep cropping up: supporting law enforcement, eradicating “critical racial theory” from schools, and electoral integrity, to name a few.
And for some voters like Heather who attended Cox's event at Galax, the last one on this list is most important – or, more specifically, whether Joe Biden won the 2020 election is most important.
"That's huge," she said. "That's primarily for that choice or any choice."
The Republicans in Virginia want to stay competitive – and keep the Conservatives on board
The future of the GOP after Trump is an open question. And aside from disputes like the one currently being fought between U.S. Representative Liz Cheney and most of the House's GOP, Virginia could be the best glimpse we get before halftime 2022.
Here's what it looks like: There are seven candidates for the Republican governor nomination, four of them in real competition (Youngkin, Chase, Cox, and Snyder). All of them tout their traditional conservative credibility – as Pro-Second Amendment, anti-abortion, pro-business, and the like. Many of them rail against Covid-related closures and praise Florida Governor Ron DeSantis for keeping schools and businesses open during the pandemic.
"We'll be opening every single school across Virginia on the first day – five days a week, every single week, with a real, living, breathing teacher in every classroom," Snyder told a crowd at a Wytheville brewery last weekend. “And folks, opening schools is just the beginning. We must break our backs on this particular monopoly of interests held by teachers' unions and bring real change to our schools. "
Final message for # VAGOV candidate Pete Snyder (R), all about education. If he's nominated at Congress this Saturday, expect the news to continue in general … https: //t.co/WN1YxoIRA6
– Josh Kraushaar (@HotlineJosh) May 4, 2021
With the country's vaccination rate, reduced community prevalence, and reopening, these pandemic issues might not be as relevant in November – or in 2022 and beyond. But it will still be Trump.
At Snyder's event, a moderator opened the afternoon by asking, "How many of you would like Donald Trump to be president now?" and a one-time Trump operator told the crowd they need to get down to the work of "defeating the socialists" who "may be even worse than socialists, they border communists".
For his part, Youngkin made sure in his blunt speech that he was praised by Trump, but was also ready to criticize the tone of the former president as "a bit harsh" at a campaign rally in Northern Virginia.
Loyalty to Trump is not the key, argues Peter Doran, former think tank CEO and one of the other three candidates recognized by the state party. (The others are former Roanoke Sheriff Octavia Johnson and retired Army Colonel Sergio de la Peña.)
“Most Republicans in Virginia are portrayed as those big, right-wing, conservative voters who only care about Donald Trump. That's not true, ”said Doran. “You take care of your job. They take care of what happened to their children in the past year and their education. And they care deeply that the Republican Party hasn't won in the last decade. "
Wilma, mother of four and delegate to the convention, agreed, saying the future of the GOP depends on getting young people to understand conservative values like small governments, constitutional rights and deficit concerns.
"My kids all look at the appeal – it might be nice to get this money, this money," she said. "But at some point they will know in the long run that they are the generation that has to pay back."
The culture wars consumed the GOP
However, it is no longer sufficient to tick the boxes "Fiscal Conservative", "Christian", "Gun Owners" and "Fight against Abortion". There are new ones on the list – keywords from the culture war themes animated by the former president.
Take "critical racial theory," which Chase says is part of the reason she chose to home-school her children.
As Fabiola Cineas of Vox explained, "Critical racial theory is a framework for addressing racial power and white supremacy in America." But it is also a catch-all term for what the Trump administration thought was an attempt to “indoctrinate” American students and workers with “divisive and harmful sexual and racial ideologies”:
"They put it all together: critical racial theory, the 1619 project, whiteness studies, conversations about white privilege," Kimberlé Crenshaw, founding critic for critical races and professor of law at UCLA and Columbia University, told Vox. “What they have in common are discourses that refuse to partake in the lie that America has triumphantly overcome its racist history, that it is all behind us. None of these projects accept that everything is behind us. "
It's not just Chase who uses the term a lot: almost all candidates make sure to highlight their opposition to it. Six have signed a pledge against critical racial theory. As journalist Dave Weigel pointed out on Twitter, Youngkin went so far as to upload several video clips criticizing this.
However, Trump's influence is perhaps most evident in his obsession with electoral security.
On the one hand, Amanda Chase's stance on the 2020 election is different from the rest of the party – so much so that she, her supporters, and some outsiders, suspect that the State party has chosen a convention rather than a primary in order to put them at risk reduce land at the end of their ticket.
Last month, in an interview with the AP, Chase even asked if Biden had won Virginia. (He wore it 10 percentage points, as the official election results show.)
But none of the candidates can distance themselves too far from Trump's lies and doubts about the 2020 elections. All you have to do is look to the US house to see the consequences.
This is the key here. Cheney is responding to massive moves across the party to confirm 1/6, led by Trump but by no means limited to Trump. She's not the one forcing this conversation. What annoys her co-workers is that she doesn't ignore it. https://t.co/t6QzdKQTkn
– Benjy Sarlin (@BenjySarlin) May 6, 2021
Neither Youngkin nor Snyder will say Biden's presidency is legitimate. Cox seems ready (at least when he's not at a diner in southwest Virginia).
And everyone has plans to improve electoral integrity. Youngkin promotes his "Task Force for Election Security," a plank of which updates the electoral roll monthly. He and Cox talk about making the state electoral commission impartial. Snyder aims to "make Virginia # 1 in electoral integrity".
These are all pretty anodyne-sounding proposals, but talking about such things is a prerequisite for securing the nomination, says Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington.
"While they may not support what happened on Jan. 6, they would like to offer a position that shows some understanding of the position of Trump supporters," Farnsworth said.
That doesn't necessarily mean the rhetoric will haunt them during the general election – Youngkins spokesman said they believe election security is not a partisan issue, "it's a democracy issue."
And "Kirk Cox is an example of a candidate who accepts Biden as a legitimate president but speaks in a way that gives comfort to Trump supporters," Farnsworth said, and it is also likely that "November voters will not be dramatic be influenced by what was said in May. "
Insisting on making America's elections safer, however, helps sustain a world where seven in ten Republican voters, according to a recent CNN poll, still say Biden didn't win enough votes to be president become.
Questioning electoral integrity is coming home to settle down
And the continued questioning of the elections has even affected the decisions of her own party. Admittedly, some of these decisions deserve scrutiny by candidates who extol the importance of signing postal votes. But it also led to Youngkin, Cox and Chase writing to the party demanding that it not use "untested and unproven software that creates uncertainty, is not open and transparent and is incompatible with our demands as a party for safe elections" .
Now each ballroom at the Richmond Marriott is counted race by race by hand. Chairman Rich Anderson explained to Brandon Jarvis of Virginia Scope how long the Republican Party of Virginia will try to instill confidence in the process:
Each ballot “is seen by several eyes at the same time” in order to prevent the transmission of numbers.
An independent oversight team outside of the state will be present.
Each candidate can have two representatives in the counting room, a party spokesman told Vox. And Anderson said they "can be pretty close on the ballot papers and keep an eye on them" because he wants them "to be comfortable with the process, understand it, and have confidence in the end results."
The news media can be on hand to cover, and Anderson says he will be posting regular updates on social media.
They also donated money to livestream the counting process because Anderson said, "I just don't want to repeat what has been done in different places around the country where people have been concerned that it is an opaque process."
That leaves "no room" for conspiracy theories about counting, says John March, the State's communications director. Even so, there are bound to be some dissidents, and if it takes days, Coleman says he can "see the conspiracy theories now".
"When you have a multi-candidate field in a multi-round election," Farnsworth said, "the only good bet is to expect the party not to get together and sing 'Kumbaya' when it's all over."
Do these Republicans even have a chance in a general election?
Virginia, once home to the Confederation capital, has moved so far to the left in presidential contests that forecast group Decision Desk named it for Joe Biden on election night in 2020 when polls closed. Trump received only 44 percent of the vote, Biden 54.
But the GOP argues that the state is not yet lost to them.
In the past few decades, Virginia had gone through an angry phase electing a governor from the opposing party that had just won the White House. The candidate to break this trend was former Governor Terry McAuliffe, who is back on the grid this year.
And March refers to the “unprecedented” interest in the convention as a sign of what is to come: “54,000 people are committed to the grassroots. … You don't really see that, and it just shows how excited the Republicans are in Virginia. "
Without Trump this year, there could be an opening – a lean one for governorship, but a larger one to flip over competitive State House districts. The person the Republicans vote for on Saturday is going to be very important.
"One thing I think could be good for you is that Ed Gillespie got more votes in 2017 than any other Republican candidate for governor," said Coleman. "So if Youngkin or whoever can get that kind of Gillespie turnout, which is definitely a question mark, and Democrats can't get that anti-Trump turnout, maybe it will be closer."
Even so, it will be an uphill battle for the GOP to shrink margins in some areas, let alone recapture them. Take Chesterfield County, which Republicans easily won for decades. In 2020, it was more than 6 percentage points for Biden.
"Going forward," says Coleman, "this could be the last potential cycle that Republicans could win a county like Chesterfield, and that might not even be enough – it might be necessary, but not enough."
Democrats seem to believe this will not be the case.
"We are ready for a fight. We are expecting a fight. We are expecting a tough race," said David Turner, communications director for the Democratic Governors Association. "But I'd say you can't cover the exact state of Virginia without acknowledging that there is pre-Trump and post-Trump, and we are still post-Trump. "