Politico

Virginia gubernatorial hopefuls key on 'election integrity' in major post-Trump contest


The first statewide Republican nominating contest since former President Donald Trump left office has added a new issue to the top tier of traditional GOP campaign messages: “election integrity.”

All four of the leading Republican candidates for this weekend’s “unassembled convention,” where Republican delegates will vote for their nominee at 39 sites around the state, are talking about election and voting rules on the trail and in ads, with some putting forth detailed plans for how they would change Virginia’s election rules.

The proposals are an unmistakable response to Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him, which quickly became a cause on the right. “Election integrity” is far from the only thing Republicans are discussing on the trail, with guns, abortion and pandemic policies all playing key roles, too. But the renewed focus on voting laws by four candidates trying to appeal to convention delegates underscores how much this issue is on the minds of Republican voters — and that Republicans who win state office in Virginia and elsewhere are poised to count changing voting laws among their top priorities.

“Election integrity has been a top message that people are concerned about, given some of the allegations that came out of last year’s election,” said Geary Higgins, the chair of the 10th congressional district Republican committee who has remained neutral in the primary. “It’s broader election integrity, but also concern about integrity in this process as well. So it is kind of a two-prong thing.”

Meanwhile, the Republican nominating process itself has been rife with fighting over how to choose the party’s standard-bearer, from the conflict over whether to have a state-run primary or a party-run convention to questions about how the ballots are ultimately counted.

There are seven Republican gubernatorial hopefuls on the ballot this year, and the consensus among the more than half-dozen Virginia Republican officials who spoke to POLITICO is that four are in the top tier: businessmen Pete Snyder and Glenn Youngkin, former state House Speaker Kirk Cox and state Sen. Amanda Chase.

Chase has been the most explicit, parroting Trump’s lies about the election while proactively seeking his support, while Snyder and Youngkin both launched “election integrity” plans or task forces early on in their campaigns.

Cox has also put forward proposals under the election integrity banner — but a spokesperson for Cox noted that he was the only “Republican candidate in the race to acknowledge President Biden as the legitimate president,” which he did following the Electoral College count in the states in December.

“Unfortunately, for too many Virginians, whether they be Republicans, Democrats or Independents, trust in our election system has been severely strained and [sic] due to many last-minute Covid-related changes to our voting systems,” Snyder said in a statement when he launched his plan. “Government has failed to deliver on the transparency and accountability expected from voters.”

Youngkin, Snyder and Cox’s campaigns all declined to make their candidate available for an interview on their election proposals and trust in the state party’s process, citing hectic schedules in the final days before the convention. Chase’s campaign did not respond to an interview request.

Former GOP Rep. Denver Riggleman, who has become a prominent critic of the Trump-era Republican Party, said that the focus on election integrity messaging is harmful to the state and the party.

“We can have an honest discussion about ‘election integrity,’ if that wasn’t a cover term for ‘Stop the Steal’ right now throughout the commonwealth,” he said, calling it less a “wink and a nod” than a “pie in the face.”

“If any candidate did not run on election integrity, because I’ve seen the local polling, they would lose,” Riggleman added.

The former lawmaker has floated running for governor as an independent. He told POLITICO he was “leaning toward the negative” on running, but that he still has time to decide.

Republicans are also grappling with the end of a contentious, months-long fight over how the party will ultimately pick its statewide candidates. After knockdown fights between pro-primary and pro-convention wings of the state central committee, the party settled on this weekend’s “unassembled convention,” with ranked-choice voting.

People who wanted to vote in the convention had to pre-register ahead of time, and the state party said that around 54,000 people had done so. They’ll vote at 39 sites spread out across the state on Saturday, after which ballots will be transported back to Richmond for counting, which will begin on Sunday. The ranked-choice system will reallocate support for the candidates with the fewest votes to those delegates’ next choices until someone secures a majority.

An additional wrinkle is that counties get a certain number of “delegates” based on population and past performance of Republicans in the area, meaning the “raw vote” total from each voting location alone won’t determine the winner.

Virginia Republicans are wary of predictions about either turnout or results because of the unusual system, noting it is a fractured field, even among the top four candidates, with a new process. Those who spoke to POLITICO unanimously agree that it will take multiple rounds to determine a winner, with the second- or third-choice of voters being decisive in the race.

Kristi Way, the party’s first vice-chair and a supporter of Cox, recalled how E.W. Jackson dominated the in-person convention in 2013 to win the lieutenant governor’s nomination after several rounds of voting. “He got up there, he gave a humdinger of speech,” she said. “And lo and behold, E.W. Jackson was the nominee when no one thought that was a possibility walking into the room.”

But that last minute horse-trading and campaigning won’t be an option for candidates this year, with voters having to fill out their ballots ahead of time. “I think it will be a more sort of straightforward outcome, than when you allow dynamics in a room to take over,” Way continued. “Not having that, I think, removes a lot of the emotion from the decision.”

There’s also some concerns that the new process could create room for rabble-rousing from a candidate on the losing side of the ledger. Chase has constantly railed against the nominating process, accusing Snyder of stacking the deck in his favor. Chase — a self-styled “Trump in heels” who was censured by her state Senate colleagues after praising the Jan. 6 insurrectionists and spreading election conspiracy theories — has threatened to run as an independent if Snyder wins the nomination.

The party plans on starting the count on Sunday, the day after voting takes place, starting from the bottom of the ballot: first attorney general, then lieutenant governor, and then governor. Officials are hoping to have the process wrapped up as soon as possible, but they are expecting multiple days of hand-counting the ballots.

“I know that some party officials are talking about later in the week, but I think that would be really tough on the party and pretty tough on the eventual nominee to have it go that long,” said state Sen. Steve Newman, a supporter of Youngkin, who said he was hopeful the process would wrap up quickly.

Republican Party of Virginia officials also said they were confident in the process: “We’ve taken so many steps to ensure this is a well run, functioning, seamless convention,” said John March, a party spokesperson.

Democrats will not select their nominee until June, when a five-candidate field competes in the state-run, first-past-the-post primary. Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe is the frontrunner in available polling, with the four other candidates in the field failing to break out with a month to go.

Many Republicans were eager to have another crack at McAuliffe, who edged out then-Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli in 2013, believing him to be a well-defined candidate who won’t animate the Democratic base.

But it is also important for Republicans to rally around their nominee quickly in a state Republicans have struggled to win statewide over the last decade. “He will be very, very prepared and very well funded, and we will have to come together quickly,” Newman said. “And then if we do and we have proper funding, I think we have a great shot at taking Virginia back.”

But Democrats assert that, no matter who wins the Republican nomination, they will not be able to pivot successfully to carrying swing voters while still holding on to their base in November — citing Republicans’ “election integrity” talk as a top example.

“Even if they don’t mention Trump by name in a video, they are pushing the exact policies that his base is demanding they follow in order to get credibility, whether it’s the voter integrity stuff, whether it’s ‘The Big Lie,” whether it’s not believing science and COVID,” Marshall Cohen, the political director of the Democratic Governors Association, said in a call with reporters earlier this week.

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