RICHMOND, Va. – The national Republican Party in Washington is at war with itself, struggling to reconcile a bitter divide between former President Donald Trump's fierce loyalists and those who want Trumpism purged from the GOP.
They need only look across the Potomac River into Virginia to see the dangers that lurk if they cannot correct course.
In just nine months, Virginia voters will elect a new governor in what marks the first significant test of the Republican Party's strength in the post-Trump era.
Although the state had a Republican governor as recently as 2014, it has trended solidly Democratic in recent years as the suburban counties outside Washington, swelling in population with a diverse blend of highly educated, well-to-do voters, have rejected the harsher edges of the GOP agenda in general, and Trump, in particular.
Republicans also will be closely watching whether the governor's race serves as a portent of their party ahead of next year’s midterm elections as GOP leaders work to ease exploding tensions between mainstream conservatives and pro-Trump adherents. The party’s future success — and maybe its survival — depends on whether Republicans in competitive states like Virginia can re-create a coalition that moves beyond Trump’s hardcore base.
So far, that playbook does not exist.
And the challenges are coming from within. Two high-profile Republicans are threatening third-party bids that would effectively kill the GOP's chance to reclaim the governor's office. Several other candidates are trying to cobble together a coalition that features both pro-Trump extremists and mainstream moderates, an ideological blend for which there is no successful model.
At the center of the Virginia GOP’s challenge sits gubernatorial candidate Amanda Chase, a polarizing state senator who seems to have won the hearts and minds of the Trump faithful with her fiercely anti-establishment, pro-gun positions and her embrace of the false notion that Trump is the legitimate winner of the November election.
Nicknamed “Trump in heels,” Chase emulates the former president in manner and policy. She was censured by Democrats and Republicans in the state legislature just last week for exhibiting a pattern of “conduct unbecoming of a senator,” including an allegation that she described the pro-Trump mob that invaded the U.S. Capitol last month as “patriots.”
And yet, in the Republican Party remade in Trump's image over the last five years, Chase is considered a serious contender for the gubernatorial nomination.
“I like to think I’m a little more polished than President Trump. I’m a little bit more diplomatic, but I am not afraid to speak my mind,” Chase said in an interview.
Democrats have an entirely different issue. Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe headlines a slate of candidates competing in a quieter nomination contest. McAuliffe, whose ties to his party's establishment have come under attack from his left flank, is quick to highlight the progressive policies he would pursue and to condemn the Republican field.
The former Democratic governor described Chase as “the Republican front-runner” during an interview.
“You’ve got a bunch of candidates all trying to out-Trump each other," McAuliffe told The Associated Press. “2021 will be a key test for if Trumpism is still alive.”
McAuliffe, a key ally of President Joe Biden who enjoys a massive fundraising advantage and near-universal name recognition in Virginia, is navigating a crowded primary contest of his own that features three African Americans — state senator Jennifer McClellan, former state delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax — plus a self-described democratic socialist, Lee Carter.
Meanwhile, the state GOP is disorganized and broke.
Moving away from a traditional statewide primary election, the party plans to hold an in-person nominating convention on May 1, though the state's social-distancing rules would make such a gathering illegal. Party leaders are leaning toward an “unassembled” satellite convention but have not ruled out letting the state GOP's 12-member executive committee pick the nominee.
Chase is openly threatening to run as a third-party candidate if she believes the rules are being manipulated against her.
“If they disenfranchise the people of Virginia, I will declare the Republican Party is dead," Chase warned. "I will start the Patriot Party of Virginia. And I won’t look back.”
She is not alone.
Former Republican congressman Denver Riggleman, who has repeatedly railed against Trump and his acolytes since leaving office last month, also raised the possibility of pursuing a third-party run for governor in recent days.
A third-party bid from either contender would split the Republican electorate and make it all but impossible for Republicans to win this fall.
Meanwhile, the Republican field features a handful of candidates who are sticking with their party. They include Kirk Cox, the former state House speaker; northern Virginia businessman Pete Snyder, who previously lost a bid for lieutenant governor; and political newcomer and former private equity CEO Glenn Youngkin.
Cox is trying to focus the election on local issues instead of Trump. He described Biden as “the legitimate president” in an interview and disavowed the pro-Trump conspiracy theory known as QAnon.
Cox also declined to say whether he'd want Trump to campaign in Virginia on his behalf.
“I would like to see everyone turn and focus on Virginia and Virginians," he said.
Trump adviser Jason Miller said it was "too early to tell" what role the former president or his high-profile surrogates would or would not play in the Virginia contest.
John Fredericks, who twice served as Trump's Virginia state director, described the state GOP as “a dumpster fire.” He predicted that Trump would get involved personally, though more likely in the general election than the Republican nominating contest.
As for Chase, Trump's most passionate ally in the race, Fredericks fears that she's not viable in a general election because of her “shenanigans.”
“The word I get from Republicans is that she’s exhausting,” he said. “They’ve had enough.”
Chase insists she has a history of winning “impossible races.” She was first elected to the General Assembly in 2015 after she knocked off a longtime incumbent who had far outraised her in the primary.
Despite her combative social media presence and the fact that she’s suing the Senate itself, she’s typically peppy and warm in personal interactions. During floor sessions, she sits behind a plexiglass shield erected because she refuses to wear a mask. Chase, who has previously said she doesn’t “do COVID,” was awaiting the results of a test Friday after a possible exposure.
Since late 2019, she’s engaged in what her critics see as increasingly bizarre, radical behavior.
In an interview, Chase declined to disavow QAnon, questioned her colleagues' mental health after they questioned hers in floor speeches last week and refused to say that Trump lost the November election.
“I believe the election was stolen nationwide,” she insisted, though later in the interview she said she did accept the election results.
In December, she called on Trump to declare martial law rather than leave office.
While Fredericks said Chase could win as much as one-third of the vote in a traditional Republican primary, she's almost completely alienated from Republican officials inside the state Capitol. She’s been booted from her own local party and in late 2019 decided to stop caucusing with fellow Senate Republicans.
Democrats are optimistic they can capitalize on the Republican chaos. But history is against them. Over the last four decades, Virginia voters have elected a governor from the party that does not win the White House in every election but one.
McAuliffe also believes that Trump's absence will make it more difficult for Democrats to energize their coalition later this year in Virginia and beyond.
“I tell Democrats all the time: Trump is now gone. And he has been a major driver of our turnout. He’s not on the ballot anymore,” McAuliffe said. “We’ve got to be on our game.”
Peoples reported from New York.