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The Battle for the GOP

‘Do you have to go a little crazy to stop the ones that are crazier?’ Virginia’s governor’s race is a window into the GOP’s turmoil

Amanda Chase, a Republican candidate for governor of Virginia, has embraced the nickname "Trump in heels."
Amanda Chase, a Republican candidate for governor of Virginia, has embraced the nickname "Trump in heels."BOB BROWN/Associated Press

Radicalized GOP label

An ongoing series examining the growth and impact of radicalization in the Republican Party

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KING GEORGE, Va. — Amanda Chase thinks some Republicans are afraid of her, and she is probably right.

Chase is a GOP state lawmaker who has embraced the nickname “Trump in heels,” legislated from a plexiglass box because she does not wear a mask, and complained that removing Confederate statues is an effort to “erase all white history.” And she is running a campaign for governor that could reveal the limits of her party’s appetite for the most inflammatory trappings of post-Trump Trumpism — if there are any.

“I said, the 2020 presidential election was stolen,” she told a county GOP meeting here last week, ticking off the reasons why she was recently censured by the state Senate in the chipper tone other politicians use to explain why people like them.

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She spoke proudly of her COVID denials and her swiftly rebuked claim that state Senator Jennifer McClellan, a Democratic candidate for governor who is in the leadership of the state’s Legislative Black Caucus, could not represent “all Virginians.”

“They said that I incited a riot because I attended the January 6 rally, and now, you know, I’m an insurrectionist apparently,” Chase continued, rolling her eyes.

“All of us are,” said someone in the audience.

Chase, 51, is the most extreme candidate in the top tier of a messy Republican nominating contest that has so far been defined by charges of election-rigging, threats of potential third-party bids, and a field-wide effort to appeal to the supporters of former president Donald Trump. That outreach comes even after he lost this state by about 10 points in November and in the process extended the drought for the Virginia GOP, whose candidates haven’t won statewide since 2009.

Nationally, there is little hesitance among Republicans to embrace the former president as tightly as possible, and Chase has topped some of the polls here, albeit with less than 20 percent. But maneuvering by state party leaders could make it harder for a candidate with a small but ardent base to emerge as the nominee. The race may turn into a test of whether the GOP base is willing to confront the electoral downsides of running as far as possible to the extreme right.

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The state party has engineered a complex nominating process that will require its nominee to get at least half of the vote — a move Chase and political analysts believe was designed to stop her from winning a crowded primary, although party officials deny that. She has a stylistic foil in the race in Kirk Cox, an ardent conservative and former House speaker who has approached Trump more gingerly and tries to tout crossover appeal. But it is not clear whether voters in today’s GOP will be persuaded by any candidate that embraces Trump’s rhetoric without delivering the full package.

The race is a microcosm of the self-generated headwinds confronting the Republican Party as it seeks to claw its way back to power in diversifying states that rejected Trump.

“There’s an ongoing battle in the Republican Party between the governing wing and the populist wing,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster who is based in Alexandria. “[Virginia] has the potential to nominate a serious contender, in what remains a swing state, depending on the candidate.”

“It also has the potential to go the way of the California Republican Party, with swing voters deserting the party in droves and leaving an extremely conservative core that couldn’t elect a Republican statewide candidate for dogcatcher,” Ayres said.

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Virginia state Senator Amanda Chase sat at a desk surrounded by plexiglass during a special Senate session in Richmond, Va., on Feb. 2. The arrangement was required for coronavirus protection because she said she has a health issue that prevents her from wearing a mask.
Virginia state Senator Amanda Chase sat at a desk surrounded by plexiglass during a special Senate session in Richmond, Va., on Feb. 2. The arrangement was required for coronavirus protection because she said she has a health issue that prevents her from wearing a mask.Ryan M. Kelly/Associated Press

Virginia’s gubernatorial nominee will be chosen in a complex, 37-site convention on May 8 in which only people vetted by the party officials can participate. The elaborate process will use ranked-choice voting to ensure the winner gets more than 50 percent of the vote.

“As Republicans, at least when you talk about voter suppression, we’re consistent,” said a wry Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman from the vote-rich Northern Virginia suburbs, which swung further left during the Trump years. “I think they did it because they were afraid that Amanda Chase, Trump in high heels, would win a multicandidate field.”

The new format will not incentivize moderation in what is effectively a blue state, since only the most dedicated party activists are likely to jump through the hoops necessary to vote.

“I want to see a candidate who defends President Trump’s policies, which I think are really inextricable from President Trump himself,” said Patti Lyman, the Republican National Committeewoman for Virginia, who denied the claims that party officials had Chase in mind when they decided to hold a convention.

Along with Chase and Cox, there are two multimillionaires in the Republican race. Pete Snyder has racked up endorsements from people in Trump’s orbit like former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Ken Cuccinelli, the hard-right former Virginia attorney general and Trump immigration official. The second, businessman Glenn Youngkin, cut an ad to highlight how Trump once thanked him. And there is a handful of lesser-known candidates.

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“Do you have to go a little crazy to stop the ones that are crazier? That’s the issue that Republican politicians have,” mused Denver Riggleman, a former Virginia Republican congressman who was ousted last year by party activists who saw him as insufficiently conservative. He said he thought he would mount a third-party bid if Chase prevails.

No matter who wins, Riggleman said, the field is a clear signal that Republicans who see embracing Trump as their path back to power have the upper hand over those who view him as a liability for the party — even in a state he lost twice

“The ones who think that Trump shouldn’t be embraced are the radicals now,” Riggleman said. “I think we’re fact-based pariahs.”

The governing wing, as Ayres calls it, is represented by Cox, a state legislator who lost his position as House speaker when Democrats won control of the chamber in 2019 for the first time in two decades. A former teacher with deep establishment support who took a hard line on abortion and gun control, he also worked with Democrats to expand Medicaid in the state in 2018 — a move he has since tried to defend as seeking the best compromise for Republicans.

“I do come from the bluest Republican district in the state ... I’ve shown that I can get Republican votes and crossover votes and I think that’s really important,” Cox said in an interview at a go-kart track outside of Richmond. He was filming an endorsement video with two former NASCAR drivers, Hermie and Elliott Sadler, and took pains to look like he was having fun as the three of them zipped around the course — especially when the brothers maneuvered to push his go-kart into the wall of the track.

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Cox is the only top-tier Republican candidate in the race to clearly say that President Biden legitimately won the November election. When asked if it is better for candidates in Virginia to embrace Trump or keep their distance, Cox said it is “better for a Republican in the state to run as themselves.” But, in a sign of Trump’s sway over the field, Cox has also supported the Trump-inspired push for new voting restrictions, praising Georgia’s restrictive new voting law in a recent radio interview.

“They’re all racing to the bottom of the barrel, so they can say they’re the closest ones to Trump, and that will not help you in a general election here in Virginia,” said Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic former governor of Virginia and the leading candidate in his party’s primary on June 8.

If he wins, McAuliffe vowed to remind voters of his opponent’s ties to Trump “every single day.”

Kirk Cox, then the Virginia House speaker, spoke with reporters after a special session on gun issues at the state Capitol in Richmond in 2019.
Kirk Cox, then the Virginia House speaker, spoke with reporters after a special session on gun issues at the state Capitol in Richmond in 2019. Steve Helber/Associated Press

Back at the one-story American Legion hall in King George where Chase was making her case, one voter asked how she could possibly win densely populated parts of Virginia that voted decisively for Biden in November.

“I’m from the suburbs,” she said brightly in response. She has questioned whether Biden actually won Virginia at all.

In response to a question from a voter named Robert Stuber, Chase said she would support the nominee if it wasn’t her — unless it’s Snyder, a candidate she has accused of trying to rig the convention. She has said she would mount a third-party bid if he wins in a process she thinks was unfair.

Stuber said he appreciated her answer, but hadn’t decided who to vote for. “The Republican message obviously isn’t strong enough with everybody,” he said, responding to a question about the Virginia GOP’s troubles. “It needs to be a more inclusive message.”

Chase is bullish on her chances at the convention.

“My supporters are hard-core Trump supporters … they’ll go anywhere or do anything to vote for their candidate,” she said, adding that her red and white campaign gear is flying off the shelves. “I mean, they’re buying my campaign crap, you know?”

“The RINOs, the never-Trumpers, I think they’re over in the fetal position, but that’s just not how I am,” she said. “I want to make people proud to be a Republican again.”


Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.