It’s a tale of two cities for Virginia Republicans as over 750 statewide GOP elected officials, wannabe politicians, and activists are expected to descend on Richmond this Friday and Saturday for the 2016 RPV Donald W. Huffman Advance.
The annual Virginia GOP love-fest, held this year at the OMNI hotel in downtown Richmond, is dubbed: “Take back Richmond.”
While Republicans are jubilant about winning the White House with Trump, they also have to reconcile this victory with their dismay over losing seven consecutive statewide races. In fact, the Virginia Republicans’ last victory dates back to 2009.
Clinton-Kaine carried Virginia this past election by about 220,000 votes, easily rolling up an insurmountable 312,000 juggernaut vote margin in just three NOVA cities: Fairfax, Arlington and Alexandria. Clinton also carried Henrico, a traditional swing county outside of Richmond City.
So when the dust settles and the last Advance cocktail reception shuts down, GOP faithful will have to roll up their sleeves and figure out a formula for winning elections in Virginia. It will start with next year’s statewide nominees.
MORNING LINE ODDS
If you have ever played the ponies at Virginia’s now shuttered Colonial Downs Racetrack in New Kent, or at any of the numerous tracks in Maryland and Delaware, you’ll get how this works.
Before getting into media, I spent years as a professional racehorse trainer.
When considering the statewide political races for Virginia in 2017, we are in the first phase of handicapping, called the morning line. I have handicapped all the races, and my early odds postings and selections are below. These are not predictions or selections, those will come later. These are the odds as I see it now.
MORNING LINE ODDS – PRIMARY
Only one race in play: Lieutenant Governor
As I predicted months ago, Del. Eileen Filler-Corn was not going to defeat our chalk in this race, Justin Fairfax.
Filler-Corn finally figured it out, and withdrew from consideration in November. That leaves one challenger to Fairfax, and one additional maybe.
Justin Fairfax 1-10.
This is Secretariat level odds. Fairfax, who narrowly lost to Mark Herring in 2013, has never stopped campaigning.
He’s dynamic on the stump, he takes political risks, and he bucks the old school Democrat Richmond establishment.
This is a compelling “take no prisoners” candidate with eye-popping credentials.
Take him on at your own risk. He’s the future of the Democratic Party – both in Virginia and nationally.
To give you a sense of how tough he is, Gov. McAuliffe tried for months to recruit someone to run against him. He came up empty.
Let me be blunt: Fairfax is a beast.
Adam Parkhomenko 25:1
Although Adam has not officially declared, we believe he will throw his hat in the ring. Who is Adam Parkhomenko and why should we care?
He’s a long-time Hillary Clinton aide and a very liberal political activist in the Daily-Koss mode. He has never run for political office himself, and is not well known in most Democratic establishment circles. So why is he only 25:1?
He has 111,000 Twitter followers. That’s a big number.
Iconic Democratic pollster and campaign consultant guru Ben Tribbett is expected to run his campaign. Give Tribbett a couple hundred thousand Twitter followers and all hell breaks loose. It will be fun to watch Tribbett back at the helm! I’ll buy tickets to watch this. Popcorn please!
Gene Rossi 75:1
Gene is a nice guy and does great radio. Very affable – what’s not to like? He’s welcome on my radio show anytime.
Gene has no shot in this race.
SHAKE-UP: Rob Wittman gets out; Denver Riggleman to jump in on Friday
Ed Gillespie 3:5
Gillespie is the clear prohibitive favorite in this race. He has the money, the staff, the name ID and enough broad based support to win with at least 40 percent of the vote on Election-Day in June.
Since losing in a surprise squeaker to Mark Warner in 2014, Gillespie has crisscrossed the Commonwealth, gaining influential supporters through personal one on one meetings. This Herculean effort is not to be ignored. He is garnering support from all corners, everywhere from conservative Tea Party longtime activists like Jamie Radkte, Rick Buchanan and Martha Boneta to well respected conservative icons like State Sen. Dick Black (R-Loudoun).
His campaign team is solid: campaign manager Chris Leavitt has now run three statewide races in a row (Obenshain ’13, Gillespie ’14 and Gillespie ’17). While he lost the first two by narrow margins, there is something to be said for experience. I’ll bet he’s learned a thing or two along the way, and he knows Virginia. This is a very complicated state.
But the best hire they made is Matt Moran as senior communications director.
Moran was the key policy director, the face and the voice of House Speaker Bill Howell, the most powerful man in Virginia. Moran has deep relationships with all GOP House members, the grizzled and veteran Virginia press corps, and most of the key players around the state. Personally, in a battle, I’d trust Moran with my most cherished affections – my wife, my son and my cat.
Team Gillespie has also added a few notable young guns like Michael Cogar, who most recently ran Pete Snyder’s policy and political shop. He’s assembled the “A” team – in the mold of Gov. McAuliffe’s dream team for the Democratic Party of Virginia.
To add another political bazooka to his arsenal, Gillespie will name Pete Snyder campaign chairman on Friday.
Snyder, who State Sen. Chap Peterson (D-Fairfax) calls “the most dangerous Republican in Virginia,” turned around the RVP’s finances as treasurer last year and ran second to E.W. Jackson for Lt. Governor in 2013.
Snyder is a seasoned political strategist and a prolific fundraiser. He’s the guy you want in your foxhole.
Gillespie is vulnerable however on two fronts: message and Trump movement loyalists.
The frontrunner is yet to find a compelling message for why he wants to be governor that resonates with the rank and file. This is his Achilles heel – for now.
Gillespie made a calculated and measured political decision to distance himself from President-elect Donald Trump during the summer and fall campaigns. He’ll have to reconcile this with Trump movement loyalists in the next several months.
This nomination is Gillespie’s to lose.
Frank Wagner 5:2
I have learned three unalienable facts about State Sen. Frank Wagner (R-Virginia Beach) since I’ve lived in Virginia: 1. Never underestimate him. 2. Never count him out. 3. See 1 and 2.
Wagner is a tough candidate with an irrefutable message: “I get things done. I sign payrolls. I create jobs. I build roads. I win.” Sound familiar?
He begins the campaign with a powerful geographic base in Tidewater – which he will likely carry by a significant margin in the June primary.
Wagner, just off a bruising 2015 re-election campaign where he staved off millions of dollars of negative television ads, is a seasoned and savvy political warrior. His name ID in his region is as close to 100 percent as it gets. Plus, Wagner is Navy veteran.
And he grew up in northern Virginia, so he has ties there. As Chairman of the powerful Senate Commerce and Labor committee, he will have the ability to raise the money he needs to wage a competitive race.
He’ll take risks and he’ll go negative when and if he’s provoked.
But what is most unique about Wagner as a candidate is his dual appeal.
On the surface, he’s a gruff, brusque rough and tumble bull in a china shop shipyard operator who dominates a room.
Yet he’s as comfortable in a suit as he is in a hard hat.
In contrast, when he’s on the campaign trail, he can be disarmingly charming.
Wagner’s campaign team is light on staff right now, and he’ll miss his former state senate campaign manager and right-hand man, Scotty Weldon, who went to D.C. to run U.S. Rep.-Elect Scott Taylor’s communications shop. But he still has longtime political consultant Ron Catron at his side, who knows how to win as an underdog.
Wagner has some major vulnerabilities: he voted to raise taxes as a state senator – including supporting the infamous 2013 transportation compromise, and as a 24-year legislator, he’ll be roundly criticized for some of the thousands of votes he has cast when the race inevitably turns ugly.
He also cannot legitimately campaign as an outsider.
Wagner is in the hunt, and he will likely emerge as the chief rival to Gillespie. If the race turns into a dogfight, he’ll be right in the thick of it.
Corey Stewart 6:1
Corey Stewart just won another race by a landslide in 2015 as Chairman of Prince William County, one of Virginia’s swing counties, while out performing his GOP state senate candidate Hal Parish by as many as 20 points in some precincts.
Stewart is a proven vote getter in a majority-minority county. Like Wagner, he wins elections in an environment where Republicans are starving for a winner.
Stewart starts off with a strong message: “I was Trump before there was Trump.”
His stance on immigration is as hardline and uncompromising as it gets, and he’s not shy about throwing his positions out to the media often in colorful and quotable terms. He’ll say some crazy things now and again, but it gets headlines.
Stewart is trying to galvanize the Trump voter base in Virginia, based on the fact that he served as Trump Virginia state chairman for about 10 months.
His electoral strategy is to cobble together a coalition of Trump loyalists, Sen. Ted Cruz disciples, and what’s left of Virginia’s fractured Tea Party that Gillespie hasn’t already locked down.
It’s a potentially impressive coalition if he can ignite it, and probably gets him around 30 percent. Not a bad base.
But getting a significant share of the Trump movement voters in Virginia is going to be an arduous task for Stewart.
His biggest hurdle: Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway fired him for insubordination on October 10 – just a month before the election.
Stewart was let go because he encouraged and participated in a high profile protest rally in front of the Republican National Committee at a time when the Trump campaign was mending fences with the RNC brass.
He ignored a direct order not to attend. That was the last straw, and they dismissed him.
This is a mess that has to be addressed with Trump voters. I doubt it just goes away.
Stewart has made some impressive staff hires that will help him build a formidable ground game.
His campaign manager is Spencer Rogers, who is from Florida. This is his first Virginia gig so there will be an inevitable learning curve.
Rogers, a U.S. Army veteran, ran point for General Petraeus’ surge in Iraq. He did the planning for the military brass, and was credited with coordinating the logistics of the historic military effort.
This led him into politics, where he engineered Ted Cruz’s successful ground game in Iowa, which was the envy of all the campaigns.
He’ll bring fresh ideas into the Stewart camp and will work with a precision not normally seen from campaign operatives.
The Prince William Chairman made a masterful hire with Jack Morgan – formally of the Trump campaign – who will run his southwest Virginia operation.
Morgan is a machine and he knows the area. Here’s how I would manage Jack if I were them: ask him for a game plan and a budget for SWVA. Don’t argue- just give it to him.
Call him once a week to be sure he’s not dead.
Get the hell out of his way. That’s it.
Denver Riggleman 12:1
Denver Riggleman is a Virginia U.S. Intel veteran and an entrepreneur. The owner of a distillery business, he will announce his campaign for governor on Friday.
So he’s killed terrorists and makes whiskey.
Sounds like a potent combination to me.
Riggleman, who was on my radio show last week, tells a compelling story of what he has gone through in Richmond to just open and operate a business in Virginia. His story of over regulation, red tape and cronyism combined with his message of shaking things up in Richmond as a non-politician are both riveting and compelling.
He hired Dave Brat’s former whiz kid Zach Werrell to manage his campaign. This will be Werrell’s first statewide race.
This is the ultimate dark horse. He’s fresh.
He’ll go directly to Trump voters.
Editors note: GOP LT. Governor and Attorney General odds COMING AFTER ADVANCE-Stay tuned.