Last Saturday, the Virginia GOP chose a convention as its system of nomination for the 2021 statewide elections rather than holding a statewide primary. Many in the party feared a repeat of the 2018 Senate primary, where far-right candidate Corey Stewart (R) managed to prevail over establishment-backed candidate Nick Freitas (R) to challenge incumbent Senator Tim Kaine in the November election that year. Stewart went on to lose in the largest loss for a Republican in a Virginia statewide election since 2008, when former Governor Mark Warner (D) beat former Governor Jim Gilmore (R) with nearly ⅔ of the vote.
This cycle, State Senator Amanda Chase (R) of Chesterfield occupies the same position as Cory Stewart did in 2018. Chase, who is severely lacking in allies within the Virginia GOP, has announced that she will run as an Independent and will begin collecting signatures in January.
The Virginia GOP found itself in a position that could be best described as “damned if we do, damned if we don’t” when it came to choosing their nomination process. If they selected a statewide primary, they would risk losing the nomination to Chase, who has built a grassroots army of conservatives since her campaign launch in early 2019. If they selected a convention, they would risk having her run as an Independent, which she now is.
Should Chase succeed in getting on the November ballot, she would severely hinder the odds of a Republican winning the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial by siphoning off conservative votes. Republicans in the Commonwealth planned on making a comeback in 2021 by winning the gubernatorial election, which would be their first statewide win since 2009. With Chase running as an Independent, that uphill battle has only gotten steeper.
It’s tempting to draw comparisons between the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial and the 2013 Virginia gubernatorial. Former Governor Terry McAuliffe, who announced today that he is officially running for Governor (again), narrowly won his first term in 2013 while a Democrat held the White House. This win broke the nearly 40 year old tradition of the Commonwealth electing a Governor that belongs to the opposite party of the incumbent President.
In addition to Chase’s break from the Virginia GOP, there will yet again be a third party candidate who could potentially draw away Republican voters. Robert Sarvis, the Libertarian nominee, earned 6.52% of the vote in 2013. Most analysts contend that he got more votes from Republican-leaning voters than Democratic-leaning voters, and thus was declared a spoiler candidate who cost Republicans the election. With Amanda Chase on the ballot, it’s a given that the vast majority of her voters will be staunch conservatives.
However, even though both McAuliffe and a third-party candidate garnering conservative votes will be on the ballot, the 2021 contest promises to be vastly different from the 2013 contest.
Firstly, McAuliffe will face strong opposition this time: he will have to grapple for the nomination with other Democrats, including Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy, State Senator Jennifer McClellan, and Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax. McAuliffe’s nomination is far from a given: Black candidates have fared especially better in Democratic primaries since the murder of George Floyd and the consequent expressions of civil unrest that have since erupted across the country. McAuliffe is going up against three Black candidates, with Carroll Foy arguably running the strongest campaign of the group thus far, and with Fairfax running the weakest.
Secondly, the general election map will look quite different in 2021. In 2013, McAuliffe won places like Covington City, Caroline County and Nelson County, which are now Republican-leaning localities, and lost in places like Winchester City and Chesterfield County, which are now Democratic-leaning localities. McAuliffe also narrowly won Loudoun County and Prince William County, both in Northern Virginia, where Democrats have since expanded their vote share. Meanwhile, Republicans have exponentially increased their vote share in the rural counties that McAuliffe lost.
Thirdly, and most importantly, Democrats are now playing defense. Before the 2013 elections, Virginia had a Republican Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General, all offices which flipped to the Democrats. Republicans managed to hold onto their supermajority in the House of Delegates that year. Now, Democrats control both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly, as well as the three statewide elected offices. The pressure is on the Democrats to keep Virginia blue, especially in the House of Delegates, which will present the best opportunity for Republicans to break the trifecta.
Chase knows that the Republicans are in a difficult position going into 2021, and her plans to run as an Independent have severely weakened the odds of them getting one of their own in the Governor’s mansion. The Virginia GOP is, once again, having a bumpy start in their preparation for an upcoming election. Whether they can smooth things out for themselves in time, somehow, remains to be seen.