Virginia voters will elect a new governor in about 11 months.
That may seem like a long way off, but in the Richmond political bubble, the race and a June primary among Republicans vying for their party’s nomination is well under way.
The primary as of now features an establishment Republican, a Trump-inspired attack dog, a longtime state senator from Hampton Roads and a congressman who’s said he’s running but hasn’t done much toward that end.
Raising money and waiting on the other side is Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, the Eastern Shore native and pediatrician who lives in Norfolk’s East Beach neighborhood and is slated to become his party’s unopposed nominee to replace Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
It may seem tedious to be talking about elections after the tumultuous presidential campaign, but voters will be hearing about the candidates more frequently now. The race takes on importance because Republicans control the legislature. Should a Republican governor replace McAuliffe, the GOP could pass its own agenda.
Only two states – Virginia and New Jersey – hold gubernatorial elections in 2017, so the Virginia contest also will be considered an early referendum on new President Donald Trump.
In contrast to four years ago, the Republican Party of Virginia opted for a primary instead of a convention. The primary is open to all voters, where a convention is decided by party insiders and activists.
Three of the four Republicans spoke Friday at the Virginia Chamber Foundation’s annual economic summit at the Williamsburg Lodge, telling an estimated 700 business officials about themselves and how they want to improve Virginia’s economy, which state Commerce Secretary Todd Haymore said “may be sluggish.”
Here’s a look at the candidates’ backgrounds and what they’re saying.
- Bill Tiernan
- Ed Gillespie
Gillespie, 55, a political strategist from Fairfax County, has nine policy committees headed by state lawmakers developing ideas he’ll unveil in 2017. His website offers a few specifics: He wants to drill off the coast for oil and natural gas, stop regulations on coal, increase education spending, restrict abortion and oppose gun-control measures.
Fifty-seven of 87 Republican state lawmakers back him, according to his website.
“I promise you this: If I am entrusted with the governorship of the commonwealth we love, I will be an honest, ethical, hard-working, principled servant-leader worthy of Virginia,” Gillespie said Friday in Williamsburg.
Gillespie was a consultant to Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential race and counselor to President George W. Bush. He helped orchestrate the 1994 GOP takeover of Congress with the “Contract With America” plan, and served as chairman of the Republican National Committee.
Gillespie helped GOP strategist Karl Rove in 2010 create the conservative super PAC American Crossroads and its nonprofit offshoot, Crossroads GPS, which can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money in politics.
He ran in the 2014 U.S. Senate campaign against incumbent Mark Warner, who attacked Gillespie for his past as a lobbyist, including for the energy company Enron.
Gillespie held policy discussions this year in Virginia with South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley – now President-elect Trump’s nominee for United Nations ambassador – and former GOP presidential candidate Carly Fiorina of Northern Virginia.
Gillespie launched in November a website and logo for his run, and his campaign now has 12 people on staff.
He announced his candidacy in October 2015.
- Bill Tiernan
- Corey Stewart
Corey Stewart, 48, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, chaired Trump’s Virginia campaign, and the surprise national victory bolstered his own campaign. Stewart already owned a reputation as a conservative opponent of illegal immigration who wins in more liberal Northern Virginia.
Stewart is running as a Virginia version of Trump – and painting Gillespie as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Like Trump, Stewart likes to attack through his Twitter account.
“Jeb couldn’t even move the needle. If you look at Ed Gillespie it’s the same thing. He’s an establishment guy who doesn’t really say anything without consulting his consultants,” Stewart said in a recent interview on the Hampton Roads radio show hosted by John Fredericks. “People are sick and tired of the same old same old, and they are not going to revert back to establishment candidates like Ed Gillespie.”
”It’s going to be a proxy battle between the establishment and the anti-establishment, and it’s going to be right here in Virginia.”
Stewart will push tax cuts and abortion restrictions.
“We’re not going to turn things around in this state by traveling across the globe trying to pin-prick and cherry pick specific businesses that we’re going to bring in,” he said Friday in Williamsburg. “Instead we have to improve the overall economic and business climate.”
Stewart was fired as Trump’s Virginia chairman shortly before the election after he joined a protest at the Republican National Committee in Washington over a perceived lack of support for his candidate.
On the day Gillespie unveiled his logo, Stewart posted a link on social media to his own logo – a red, white and blue-themed Virginia – and posted the Gillespie, Northam and McAuliffe election logos below; all three use the same blue and green color.
”Like their logos, they are all the same!” Stewart wrote on Twitter.
Stewart announced his run for governor in April.
- Bill Tiernan
- Frank Wagner
Hampton Roads residents know state Sen. Wagner, a longtime member of the General Assembly, from a bruising 2015 re-election campaign against Democrat Gary McCollum, and his leadership in a plan under former Gov. Bob McDonnell to raise taxes for transportation improvements. His Virginia Beach district includes part of Norfolk.
Wagner won last year, but not without both sides spending big money in a nasty campaign centered on attacks.
Wagner, 61, is the only military veteran among the Republican candidates, having served in the Navy. He previously owned Davis Boat Works, a shipyard in Newport News, and before that started his own shipyard.
Wagner was a co-chairman of Trump’s Virginia campaign and said Friday in Williamsburg he wants to hold the new president’s feet to the fire on his call for reducing federal regulation of business – and would love to do the same as governor.
“It’s almost like a yoke being lifted off of business,” he said Friday of Trump’s election. “… You’re hiring somebody to run the state for you. So I ask you to look at everybody’s background, look at the business background.”
Among issues he will talk about are bigger changes to transportation and protecting the use of coal for energy.
Wagner sponsored one of the most controversial bills of the 2015 General Assembly, which was signed into law by McAuliffe.
The measure blocked for five years the state’s ability to review and adjust Dominion Virginia Power’s base electricity rates while keeping rates frozen.
Opponents said it would allow the energy monopoly, the top corporate contributor to Virginia political campaigns, to potentially retain hundreds of millions of dollars that before would be returned to customers.
The reason given for the bill was the Obama administration’s pending Clean Power Plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The U.S. Supreme Court in February halted its implementation pending judicial review.
Wagner announced his run for governor in August.
- Bill Tiernan
- Robb Wittman
Rep. Rob Wittman of Virginia’s 1st Congressional District has said he’s running for governor but has been quiet on that front, focusing on work in Washington as the new presidential administration begins to take power.
He notified the chamber about 10 a.m. Friday that he would not be attending the forum, but sent a video message.
It did not mention his candidacy, leading to further speculation that he won’t run.