The Quiet Competence of Frank Wagner

Virginia’s GOP gubernatorial primary has been grinding on for months now, slowly inching towards June 13.  While most of the press coverage has focused on the inevitability of Ed Gillespie and the buffoonery of Corey Stewart, one thing has gone relatively unnoticed – the quiet competence of Frank Wagner.

It’s a shame.  In any other year, in any other political climate, Frank Wagner’s no-nonsense, firm grasp of the facts, focus on issues that matter to Virginians, and long record of governance would be an asset.  Instead, he has languished at the bottom of the polls.  His first major introduction to voters was last week’s primary debate at Liberty University.

Leaving aside the obvious need to contrast himself with the other two candidates, Wagner’s debate performance was everything that you would expect in a veteran legislator.  He knew what he was talking about, and he rightly pointed out that while his opponents were talking about issues, he had the experience actually legislating on them in the General Assembly.

So why isn’t he gaining any traction?

There remains, deeply ingrained in the grassroots of the Republican Party, a distrust and a dislike of long-serving elected officials.  Wagner has spent 16 years in the Senate and 9 years in the House of Delegates, for a combined 25 years in the General Assembly.  That is a wealth of experience, and dwarfs Stewart’s ten years in local government, and Gillespie’s two years as a senior advisor to President Bush.  There is no comparing their experience – Wagner wins hands down. In fairness, Ed Gillespie is likely to win the primary because he’s a strong candidate and a superb campaigner.  He has done everything right.  The only area where he comes up short is in governing experience.

The modern GOP, however, doesn’t seem to like experience.  Many activists look at long serving legislators like Wagner, or Bob Goodlatte, and find their service and experience to be liabilities, rather than benefits.  Many GOPers still cling to the idealistic, but naive, belief that modern government can be run well by political outsiders with no experience, going so far as to elect the first U.S. President who had never served a single day in any kind of public service job until day one of his presidency.  With that attitude, coupled with the traditional Republican skepticism of government as a problem solver, it’s not surprising, even if it is disappointing, that the candidate who can demonstrate the most prolonged competence at governance is the one trailing the farthest in the polls.  Thus, Gillespie has emerged as the consensus front-runner, with his lack of experience not being a real issue.

Experience alone, though, isn’t why Wagner has not been gaining in the polls.  Corey Stewart has been “surging” in the polls (to 12%), as the Richmond Times-Dispatch noted – while still referring to Stewart as “a joke.”

Wagner’s stagnation is also because he has refused to stoop to Corey Stewart’s level in trying to gain ground on Ed Gillespie.  Stewart, when he isn’t wrapping himself in the Confederate flag, has been doing everything in his power to undermine Gillespie’s candidacy, from spreading fake news headlines on social media, to pushing the “Establishment Ed” moniker so far it’s become almost ubiquitous, even among Gillespie supporters.  Gillespie, to his credit, has largely ignored Stewart’s nonsense, much like a shark ignores the pilot fish hovering around him hoping for an easy meal.  Wagner, on the other hand, hasn’t been attacked or the attacker.  He’s largely focused on issues and highlighted his resume, background and experience.  Sure, there’s the inevitable nod to Gillespie’s DC experience that you’ll find in any campaign against a Northern Virginian, but he has not piled on the way Stewart has.  Unfortunately, this is yet another example of where good behavior is punished and bad behavior rewarded.

For some reason, there is a subset of the Republican Party, especially in Virginia, who fall in love with any candidate who acts like a horse’s ass to their opponents.  Maybe it’s the id of the GOP, or maybe Alfred was right, but the reality is that there is a solid group of supporters for any candidate out there who is willing to take the low road.  Stewart is appealing to those voters and getting the short-term bump.  Wagner has chosen not to do that, and that’s to his credit, even if it doesn’t show up in the polling.

Wagner’s analog on the Democratic side is, oddly enough, Ralph Northam – another Virginia Beach area legislator with a wealth of experience, and who has been running a relatively boring campaign so far against progressive darling Tom Perriello.  Northam, however, is the only establishment candidate in his primary, so he has the benefit of being the front runner.  Had Gillespie not joined this race, it’s likely Wagner would be enjoying a lead over Stewart, too.

A race between Northam (the old bipartisan version of him, at least) and Wagner would provide Virginia with the benefit of a campaign between two experienced, capable legislators who could be relied upon to work with the General Assembly to govern Virginia – as opposed to the current occupant of the Governor’s Mansion.  That would be a refreshing change of pace for Virginia’s voters – a choice between two candidates who have the experience and the character to handle the job well.  We have had very few of these races over the last seven years, with voters opting over and over again for firebrands that are all sizzle and no steak, rather than the quiet competence of the Virginia Way.

Frank Wagner, in any other year, would be a strong candidate for Governor.  Unfortunately, he chose to run in 2017, when GOP voters have been penalizing competence and encouraging bad behavior.

It’s a shame that such a solid legislator can’t seem to gain traction in today’s GOP.