An Early Look at 2017
Exactly one year and one month from today, Virginia voters will be voting in the 2017 elections, with an electorate that will look significantly different than the one voting on November 9, 2016. This electorate, history holds, will likely favor Republicans looking to recapture statewide office after being shut out in all three offices for the first time since 1989.
Let’s take an in-depth look at both sides:
Ralph Northam. The presumptive nominee, having cleared the field when most-likely competitor Attorney General Mark Herring inexplicably announced in September 2015 that he would seek reelection, rather than the promotion he had clearly been angling for. With that decision, Northam is largely unopposed. Northam faces a number of challenges in his gubernatorial run, including financing and stamina. Northam is a notoriously lazy campaigner, unwilling to ‘press the flesh’ more than needed. His election in 2013 to Lieutenant Governor was virtually gifted, having faced the long shot candidacy of Bishop E.W. Jackson, and coasted to victory with the largest margin in the 2013 statewide contests. His lack of statewide campaign abilities were masked by his 2013 race, but will likely be exposed in 2017. Northam also presents an enthusiasm challenge for Democrats; by all regards, Herring was the more excitable candidate, with the stronger progressive record. Northam is largely an unknown quantity, having little legislative record as a State Senator and somehow even less as Lieutenant Governor. Given Governor McAuliffe’s policy failures on Medicaid, the economy and restoration of felons’ rights, Northam looks to inherit the Governor’s Mansion in a year likely to unfavorable to Democrats. Northam has trailed in every early 2017 poll. With no intra-party opposition, Northam sits on a warchest of more than $1.3 million.
Ed Gillespie. Having nearly knocked off senior Senator Mark Warner in 2014, is the clear favorite and front-runner. With more than $1 million cash on-hand, as well as substantial name ID statewide, and early polls showing a wide lead over every other announced candidate, Gillespie is in the catbird seat moving towards the 2017 primary. With Tim Kaine’s selection of Vice-President, rumors about a switch to a U.S. Senate run were dispelled by Gillespie, who committed himself 100% to a Governor’s run in 2017. Having announced his run at the end of 2015, Gillespie has had a significant head-start on the field. He was also given a boost last fall when potential opponent State Senator Mark Obenshain announced he would not run for Governor, despite having lost the closest statewide race in 2013. Obenshain endorsed Gillespie, as did potential gubernatorial candidate Pete Snyder, who declined to enter the race just last month. With his biggest competitors on the sidelines supporting him, Gillespie simply needs a mistake-free campaign through the winter and spring is the odds-on favorite to be the nominee.
Corey Stewart. His appointment as Donald Trump’s Campaign Chairman of Virginia has been a boon to his efforts. Despite little name ID outside of Prince William County going into the year, Stewart has barnstormed the state in support of the Trump-Pence ticket. Attending nearly every rally as well as visiting localities throughout the Commonwealth, Stewart has clearly been putting in the miles to support his candidacy. However, as Trump’s Virginia Chairman, Stewart’s future is likely tied to Trump’s. With polling consistently showing Trump down beyond the margin of error in the Commonwealth, another blue Virginia could damage Stewart’s chances. Should Trump lose both Virginia and the national election, Stewart would have a tough hill to climb, both in fundraising and on message. Rumors abound of frustration from the Trump campaign, who feel their campaign in Virginia has at times been overshadowed by Stewart’s higher office aspirations.
Rob Wittman. The 1st Congressional District Representative since 2007, Wittman is well-known and well-liked within the state party, but early polling has shown a struggle for name ID throughout the state. Wittman’s conservative record is unimpeachable, as is his character, but since the nomination method has switched to a primary, Wittman’s campaign has demurred on future speculation. Primarily focused on his reelection campaign for Congress against Bowling Green Town Councilman Matt Rowe, Wittman’s campaign has pushed off any additional 2017 talk until after November 9th. Wittman is frequently mentioned as the most-likely candidate to switch from running for Governor to U.S. Senate in the event Hillary Clinton prevails in November.
Frank Wagner. One of the more senior members of the Virginia Statehouse, having represented Virginia Beach for more than 25 years, Wagner’s gubernatorial announcement coincided with the State Central decision for a primary nomination method. Largely unknown to the electorate outside of the Hampton Roads area, Wagner’s challenges include statewide fundraising and name ID. Wagner faced a tough reelection race in 2014, with issues raised about his company’s federal contracts as well as his ties to Dominion Virginia Power. If Wagner gains traction in the race, expect to hear more about these as we move into 2017.
Justin Fairfax. A former federal prosecutor, Fairfax narrowly lost the 2013 primary for Attorney General to Mark Herring. Fairfax traveled the Commonwealth in support of McAuliffe, Northam and Herring after that, but found himself in intra-party controversy this year during the state Democratic Convention. Having endorsed in the Norfolk Mayor’s race, supporting Norfolk Sheriff Bob McCabe over party favorite State Senator Kenny Alexander, Fairfax’s request to speak at the state Convention was denied, despite allowing likely competitor Delegate Eileen Filler-Corn. After noting their concern, the Democratic Party of Virginia Executive Director Becca Slutzky called out Fairfax as ‘irresponsible’, claiming he was ‘seeking to divide our party…’. Fairfax has nearly $200,000 on hand as of June 30, and despite any lingering internal animosity, remains the front-runner for the nomination.
Gene Rossi. Also a former federal prosecutor, who trained Justin Fairfax in the Eastern District. Rossi served 27 years in the Justice Department, but remains largely unknown outside of Northern Virginia Democratic circles. Any further stumbles from Fairfax would assist Rossi’s uphill nomination battle. Having just announced his run in July after his retirement from Justice, we’ll have a better snapshot on Rossi’s chances after the next filing period.
Eileen Filler-Corn (rumored). A Virginia Delegate from the 41st District in Fairfax, having served since 2010. Best known for winning a special election in 2010 by just 37 votes, Filler-Corn remains an unknown quantity statewide. She supported Governor McAuliffe’s gun compromise in the General Assembly earlier this year. As noted above, Filler-Corn was given a speaking slot at the state Democratic Convention, which would help increase her visibility. Filler-Corn had $163,000 in her House campaign fun as of June 30, giving her a comfortable situation should she choose to run.
Bryce Reeves. The State Senator from Central Virginia has been traveling the state, attending local meetings and remaining a constant presence at Republican gatherings. Celebrated in 2011 for his come from behind victory over incumbent Ed Houck, giving State Senate Republicans a majority and Republican complete control of the Governor’s Mansion and General Assembly. Reeves’ campaign may have stepped in it a bit when they announced their support for a convention on the eve of the State Central Committee vote, only to see the Committee choose a primary instead. Reeves had a combined $500,000 available as of June, putting him neck and neck with Vogel as they jockey for front-runner status.
Jill Vogel. The State Senator from Northern Virginia has also been traveling the state, working and meeting with different groups and Republican local committees. Initially announcing her run and inexplicably trumpeting her support for transvaginal ultra-sounds from 2012 (WHAT?!), Vogel was clearly angling for grassroots convention support. Since the summer and subsequent primary decision, Vogel has moved away from that talking point, but it raised an early eyebrow. As of June 30, Vogel had more than $500,000 on hand for her Lieutenant Governor run, positioning herself well for a run and tangling with Reeves for front-runner status.
Glenn Davis. The Delegate from Virginia Beach, yes, has also been traveling the state, taking as many meetings as possible. Davis’ work ethic and commitment is unquestioned, however his fundraising has yet to materialize, with just $25,000 combined from his Lieutenant Governor and Delegate accounts available. The most frequent knock on Davis is his support for Medicaid expansion, one of the few Republicans in the General Assembly to openly explore backing Medicaid alternatives.
Given the traditional fluidity of the Lieutenant Governor’s intra-party race, there remains opportunity for additional candidates to get into the race. None of the three announced candidates has made significant headway, opening the door to a well-funded, well-backed candidate. With the LG’s office being the least visible of the three statewide offices, polling and name ID will be a challenge throughout the primary election cycle. Rumored candidates, but little to go off of beyond whispers of rumors include Micah Edmonds, previous candidate for the 8th Congressional District, and Danny Vargas, former candidate for the 86th House of Delegates. Many rumors and whispers were prior to the SCC primary decisions, which increases the financial burden of a candidacy.
Mark Herring. Herring announced in September 2015 he would seek reelection for Attorney General, clearing the field of any potential challengers. As the incumbent, Herring has led the most politicized Attorney General’s office in a generation. It’s little secret that Herring’s office has ongoing animosity with the General Assembly and even the Governor’s Office. His decision to support gay marriage and single-handedly change Virginia law without the General Assembly disturbed many, and bringing rumors of impeachment just months into office. Herring then refused to defend Virginia’s Voter ID law, spending taxpayer money on outside counsel despite an office of lawyers. This year, Herring announced Virginia would no longer honor concealed carry permits from outside states, only to have his months-crafted plan upended by Governor McAuliffe’s compromise with the General Assembly. Herring was notably absent from that announcement, coincidentally. Despite these clear politicized moves, Herring surprisingly deferred seeking the Governor’s chair to Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam. With Governor as his best shot for continuing to hold elected office, Herring’s decision to seek reelection is questionable at best. With poor political decision-making within Richmond government circles, a terrible record as Attorney General and having self-imploded any legislative agenda or legacy by taking on the General Assembly, Herring is the least-likely Democrat to win statewide in 2017. Herring’s only potential saving grace is the more than $600,000 in his reelection fund.
Rob Bell. Rob Bell has been running for Attorney General since 2012. Despite losing the nomination to State Senator Mark Obenshain in 2013, Bell continued unofficially campaigning, a frequent guest at local meetings, Advances and state conventions. Bell is famous for his personal touch, sending a litany of hand-written notes to supporters and those he meets along the campaign trail. Having represented a safely Republican seat since 2002, Bell has accrued a campaign war chest of more than $800,000, nearly double that of his closest competitor. Bell may be best remembered for ‘Tebowing’ after his Tebow Bill allowing home-schooled students to participate in public school sport passed the House of Delegates in 2012.
John Adams. Former clerk for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as well as a former prosecutor, Adams is a first-time candidate from Chesterfield. His connections in the Richmond area through his position at McGuire-Woods gives him considerable networking capabilities, demonstrated by his quick initial fundraising pace, raising nearly $400,000 in the first six months of 2016. A relative unknown to Republican circles outside of Richmond at the beginning of the year, Adams’s challenge is name ID and battling Bell, who’s had a five year head-start on the nomination.
Chuck Smith. Unknown outside the Hampton Roads area, Chuck Smith previously ran unsuccessful bids for the 2nd Congressional Republican nomination, and later an unsuccessful race for the 3rd Congressional District against incumbent Bobby Scott. As of the last filing period, Smith had just $1,374 on hand, despite loaning his campaign $2,500 personally. Smith is an also-ran, who may drop out before the primary, or seek another run at the 3rd Congressional District.
Wild Card: U.S. Senate
In the increasingly likely event that Hillary Clinton wins next month, Senator Tim Kaine would move into the Vice Presidency, opening a vacancy for Senate. Virginia code would require Governor Terry McAuliffe to appoint a Senator, with a special election to be announced later in 2017 (almost 100% guaranteed to coincide with the existing statewide elections on November 7, 2017). McAuliffe’s appointment would not be required to run for Senate, but most likely would. The individual elected to the Senate in 2017 would then immediately be running for reelection in 2018, when the scheduled term ends. Additionally, with Democrats only needing to capture three seats in 2016 to take a 50-50 split (with Kaine serving as a tiebreaker, and therefore, a majority), any open Senate seat in Virginia would be fiercely contested by both sides. National money would flow into the Commonwealth, rendering the 2017 gubernatorial and other statewide elections an afterthought.
*note: given the awkward nature of the position (either openly advocating for a Republican loss, or Democratic win, or Democratic loss), all candidates are rumored at this point
Bobby Scott. The clear front-runner is cited by many as the most likely to be tapped by Governor McAuliffe to replace Tim Kaine. Scott has served in Congress since 1993, benefiting from an unbeatably drawn district. In 2013, his district voted 75% Democratic. Scott would be an historic appointment, the first African-American Senator from Virginia, from a Commonwealth with questionable (at best) history with blacks. As the senior member of the Democratic Congressional delegation, Scott has virtually earned the right of first-refusal. However, despite the celebratory nature of the potential historic appointment, considerable questions face Scott. Notoriously anemic at fundraising, Scott has never faced a serious reelection contest. He has never raised more than $525,000 for a reelection race, and would be needing more than $25 million for a statewide Senate run in consecutive years. He has no fundraising network, or supporting PAC, and would rely heavily on Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee support, leaving a critical part of his success out of his hands. Scott is also known to be a laid-back campaigner, not prone to lengthy campaigning given his relative safety for more than 20 years in Congress. Combining the lethargic campaigns of Scott for Senate and Northam for Governor t the top of the ticket in 2017 would be a boon for Republicans, with a considerable enthusiasm gap favoring the Virginia GOP.
Don Beyer. The clear alternative to Scott, and potential dark-horse candidate. As a former Lieutenant Governor, and ambassador to Switzerland in the Obama Administration, Beyer’s connections across Virginia and Washington would make him a formidable candidate. Beyer’s fundraising capabilities dwarf Scott’s, as well as his personal finances through his car dealerships which would allow further self-funding. Beyer’s nomination would leave the 8th Congressional District in Democratic hands as the second-most Democratic seat in the Commonwealth.
Jennifer McClellan. Should McAuliffe, who has stated his desire for a diverse Congressional delegation, go a different direction, he could tap the Richmond delegate. McClellan, who considers Tim Kaine a mentor, would be just the second African-American woman to ever serve in the U.S. Senate. McClellan would face many of the challenges that Scott faces, with no clear fundraising network or support. It would also be a considerable challenge for McAuliffe to elevate a sitting Delegate unknown outside her district for a statewide run. However, as a relatively fresh face in Washington and her employment as a corporate attorney, McClellan could be a stronger position for fundraising capacity.
Dave Brat. The first-term Congressman from Henrico has been the first to openly muse a Senate candidacy, raising eyebrows across the Commonwealth. While it’s one thing to be a realist and expect a Trump lose, to openly speculate about it and consider running for Senate is considered politically uncouth. Brat is a grassroots legend, having knocked off sitting Majority Leader Eric Cantor in their 2014 primary, but remains largely unknown to most Virginia Republicans outside of that. A statewide run would require a dramatic increase in fundraising, something Brat has not been challenged with, having raised less than $1 million for his 2016 reelection campaign. With a largely quiet first term in Congress, Brat would be forced to rely heavily on grassroots support for a primary challenge, a tall task given the likely size of the field and the candidates it’s likely to generate.
Jimmie Massie. The delegate from Henrico County has been heavily linked to a Senate run in the event of a Kaine elevation. Largely unknown having served in the House since 2008, Massie’s candidacy would be a question mark. With little to no name ID statewide, and marginal fundraising required given his safe seat, Massie has been unopposed for reelection since 2007. It’s likely an uphill battle for the 71st District Delegate.
Ken Cuccinelli. A requisite addition to any candidate list for future Virginia office, given his grassroots support, fundraising capacity, charisma and lightning rod personality. Cuccinelli would face a crowded field, contending with other grassroots champions in a tight contest. His grassroots support nearly buoyed him into the Governor’s Mansion in 2013; had the election been one week later, Cuccinelli almost certainly would have been elected. Cuccinelli’s denial for consideration of the Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice position earlier in 2016 was seen by some as a commitment to run for elected office in the near future. He has remained a constant activist and presence in Virginia political circles, and elevated his grassroots activism nationally this year in support of Texas Senator Ted Cruz. However, Cuccinelli was damaged at the 2016 RNC Convention. First having failed negotiations with RNC officials seeking rule changes and grassroots support, then the subsequent Rules Committee chaos on the floor that led to Cuccinelli taking off and dropping his credentials in disgust. It remains to be seen how his support of Ted Cruz’s unpopular candidacy in Virginia will translate with voters in 2017, should he decide to enter the race.
Carly Fiorina. The would-be Vice President (seriously, remember that?) has been a resident of Virginia since 2010, and like Newt Gingrich before her, is a popular outlier/dark-horse mention for candidacy. Since folding her Presidential aspirations, Fiorina has been a diligent and hard-working surrogate, first for Ted Cruz, then for lower races, including Scott Taylor’s Congressional race in the 2nd District. With a considerable ability to raise money, a high name ID to begin a short race to the primary, and a seat on the JMU Board of Visitors, Fiorina would be a formidable candidate. However, reconciling a run for Virginia so soon after a failed run for Senate in California as well as her failed run for President would present a challenge.
Tom Davis. The perennial favorite to be mentioned for any office, the former Northern Virginia Congressman continues to offer sound bites for nearly every Virginia related candidacy speculative post. Davis left the 11th Congressional District in 2008, joining Deloiite, as well as serving on the George Mason University Board of Visitors. Davis remains popular in Northenr Virginia Republican circles, but would be challenged to recapture the requirements needed for a sprint to the primary. Davis’ predilection for television appearances and newspaper quotes has also ruffled a few feathers, and would present ammunition for opponents.
Barbara Comstock. Locked into a reelection battle in the Virginia 10th Congressional District, Comstock is the shoe that everyone is waiting to drop. A Comstock candidacy would likely clear the field of most competitors. Comstock is well regarded with both the grassroots and party officials, with a well-stocked business community and ability to fundraise. Given the close nature of her race, we’re unlikely to have any update about a Comstock candidacy until at least November, but more likely the Advance in December. In the meantime, some candidates may try getting a leg up to take advantage of that vacuum.
Rob Wittman. As mentioned above, Wittman remains the most likely candidate to switch from a Governor’s run to a Senate run. However, a Comstock candidacy would likely prevent that, leaving Wittman on the sidelines in 2017.
There are others considering a Senate run, but remain unlikely rumors (Pete Snyder, Eric Cantor), or have no realistic chance (Shak Hill). With just over a month to go, if polls continue to point in Hillary’s direction, expect to see more public jockeying and hear whispers about a U.S. Senate run becoming louder.