By Cole Trower
Growing up I was engulfed with college football. While that season will not kick off for a couple more weeks, the race for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate begins this Saturday when the Republican Party of Virginia State Central Committee will be voting on the method of nomination used to determine the Republican nominee for the 2018 United States Senate election against powerful Democratic incumbent Tim Kaine.
My sources tell me that the vote will most likely be in favor of a statewide primary due to the pro-primary advocates holding a comfortable vote cushion over traditional pro-convention supporters.
Going off of the speculated primary decision, I have based this opinion piece off the requirements needed to run and win the nomination which are not exclusive but do include: name ID, grassroots organization, competent staff, a compelling message to voters on why that particular candidate should earn individual’s votes, ability to get message to the voters, and, of course, funding for the campaign.
Just to be on the ballot candidates must collect over 10,000 valid statewide signatures of eligible Virginia voters with several hundred of those coming from each of Virginia’s 11 Congressional districts.
In the spirit of college football’s annual preseason power rankings, I have my list of 10 potential candidates for the U.S. Senate nomination who have expressed interest, or rumors of interest, in running. These names were compiled by reaching out to dozens of influential Republican movers and shakers in different localities, ages, and Republican brands.
Since we now have somewhat of an idea of the political terrain facing potential candidates, let’s take a look into what each has to offer.
10) Governor Bob McDonnell: Yes I said it, Robert F. McDonnell. I know you may think it’s crazy but over the course of reaching out to Republicans to hear their thoughts on this race, this name kept emerging. Although McDonnell most certainly will not jump in, the endless intrigue from grassroots leaders in Virginia cannot be ignored with many viewing him as someone who got the short end of the stick. They saw that he could have been President and would have been a remarkable one. He was a great Governor, and even those who did not always agree with his stances admitted he would be an automatic contender.
PROS: Stellar record of accomplishments. Supported transportation improvements and brought home the bacon for Hampton Roads. Strong with his faith and convictions, national name ID, former head of the Republican Governors Association, raised the speed limit from 65 mph which was the policy under Tim Kaine to 70; made sure the rest stops that Tim Kaine shutdown were funded and operational, brought Virginia’s ranking to #1 in the nation for business and job growth, and properly restored the rights of those Virginians who paid their dues unlike now-Governor Terry McAulliffe. He was elected as a referendum on then-Governor Tim Kaine. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that Bob McDonnell won Fairfax County as a Republican.
CONS: Unfortunate events and legal battles at the end of his Governorship.
CONCLUSION: Governor Bob McDonnell would be Tim Kaine’s worst nightmare, but due to a series of unfortunate events, Bob McDonnell will not be on the ballot.
9) Delegate Jimmie Massie: The retiring Delegate from Henrico is a distinguished statesman and entrepreneur. Massie’s career in finance and investment banking proves he has a firm grip on the challenges Virginia’s economy faces. He is strong in his convictions as he once served in leadership of the Family Foundation. Massie has served on the Republican Party of Virginia State Central Committee and served as a surrogate speaker for the Trump Campaign.
PROS: Massie has the experience to know how government works. His strong financial background would allow him to push a message of a stronger economy and his support for President Trump ensures Trump supporters that he will work with our President’s agenda to grow jobs. Jimmie Massie is very thoughtful and likeable which, combined with a strong physical presence, make him very memorable. Jimmie Massie is tight with the movers and shakers in the Richmond area which would provide him with some fundraising potential.
CONS: Low name ID is his biggest problem. Few people statewide know who he is outside of the General Assembly.
CONCLUSION: Jimmie Massie has a lot of potential to be a darkhorse candidate that makes serious headway if he can garner the support of the big players in Richmond, hire an effective staff to get his name ID up statewide, and campaign relentlessly across Virginia shaking hands and kissing babies.
8) Bishop E.W. Jackson: There is not a better orator than E.W. Jackson. An African-American Marine Corps veteran turned evangelical pastor is a tough combination to beat. E.W. is beloved by many grassroots activists not only throughout Virginia but also the nation. The 2013 Republican nominee for Lt. Governor and 2012 U.S. Senate primary candidate is a fixture in conservative circles. He still travels the state expressing his support for Judeo-Christian values and his criticisms of the liberal agenda. He was a member of the Virginia Delegation at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland and traveled Virginia stumping for Donald J. Trump and Mike Pence. Jackson has been traveling Virginia recently with stops in Harrisonburg, Lynchburg, and Kilmarnock the past several months to keep up appearances.
PROS: The best public speaker in Virginia. Put Jackson in front of a crowd and they will fall at his feet. He has high name recognition among Virginia Republicans and many appreciate his support for President Trump last fall. He has a committed following of core activists who know Virginia and the inner working of its elections. Jackson is a seasoned statewide campaign veteran and knows how the game is played. He could turn a switch and hundreds of supporters would have his back.
CONS: Jackson would rather have a convention. Fundraising would certainly be tough going against some potential national figures. Many question his electability in a light blue state following his rough defeat to Democrat Ralph Northam in November 2013.
CONCLUSION: Of course, Jackson prefers a convention over a primary but underestimate him at your own peril. He has dedicated followers, strong grassroots, and is the best public speaker in Virginia.
7) Governor Jim Gilmore: A former Henrico County Commonwealth’s Attorney, State Attorney General, and Governor, Jim Gilmore has all of the accolades. He is even a past candidate for the Presidency. Governor Gilmore is someone who is focused on realistic solutions to everyday problems Virginians face. He has experience with Global Affairs as evident in his dealings with anti-terrorism efforts and his service in the Army where he served as a counterintelligence agent in West Germany during the 1970s. Governor Gilmore has been making the rounds and has earned the respect of many Republicans across the spectrum due to his willingness to put forward solutions. He may benefit more from a convention than a primary due to his prior convention victories for the nomination of Attorney General and U.S. Senate.
PROS: Knows Virginia. The former governor knows Virginia inside and out. He knows the players, and how the game is played. He has a strong grassroots following of tea party supporters throughout the state. His commitment as a Republican to African American voters is also something to take note of. Gilmore is someone who wants a broad coalition of people who want a better life for the next generation regardless of race or class. Governor Gilmore has the name ID, experience, and institutional knowledge to make a serious run for the nomination.
CONS: 2008 was rough. In his run for U.S. Senate against incumbent Mark Warner, 2008 was not good for Gilmore.
CONCLUSION: Grassroots activists love Governor Gilmore. He is solution oriented and has a vision for a broad coalition of united Republicans, but he may have brighter opportunities on the horizon that allow him to serve in a non-elected role in place of running a brutal year-long campaign for Senate.
6) State Senator Frank Wagner: Wore a hard hat, navy diver, graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, shipyard owner/operator, and over 20 years of experience governing Virginia — what more could you want? A late start in the race for Governor proved to be his downfall. Wagner was cut off at the knees right out of the gate with money, staff, and commitments to Gillespie. With all that against him, Wagner showed he had a plan to focus on important issues like technical education, reforming Virginia’s higher education system, and critical improvements to our infrastructure. Wagner embraced President Trump and was solid on all of the issues with a record to back it up. He opened a lot of eyes in his run for Governor and could turn that momentum into a run for the Senate. In calling around the state, there were a lot good words to be said about Wagner from even some usually not-in-his-corner types.
PROS: Based in Hampton Roads, Wagner has won tough elections where it matters. He can shoot the breeze with the blue collar welder at the shipyard and then have a drink with the aristocrats down at the country club. Wagner has great accolades and is good on his feet, whether a debate or stump speech. He has experience, and put that experience to use mapping out how he would help Virginia’s economy in each region of the state. Frank Wagner puts forward real plans and ideas where he thinks it will help Virginia and he is not afraid to back them up. Frank also has a strong reputation as supporting the 2nd Amendment and President Trump which goes a long way with Republican primary voters.
CONS: Campaign wise, there was a severe lack of grassroots support and campaign structure from his Governor’s run that hurt him in the end. There were a large number of key events and meetings where Wagner’s campaign did not even have a presence. The events in Hampton Roads were usually covered but it seemed as if throughout the state was just too big an area to keep up with.
CONCLUSION: If Frank Wagner works hard to get Ed Gillespie elected, locks in some key support from members of the General Assembly, and pushes Hampton Roads to the polls in the primary, he could be our Republican nominee for U.S. Senate.
5) Carly Fiorina: Fiorina, who now lives in Northern Virginia, has traveled the Commonwealth the past several months meeting the voters of Virginia. A past candidate for the U.S. Senate in California and the Presidency, Fiorina is no stranger to a large-scale campaign. The former CEO of Hewlett Packard has had her name mentioned more than any other in regards to interest in running for the U.S. Senate nomination in Virginia.
PROS: National Figure. Carly Fiorina has high name ID and the experience of running for President. Fiorina is quick on her feet, articulate, and presents herself very professionally. Fiorina could bring in some big cash from across the country as she works her previous rolodex of connections. Fiorina is business savvy and knows of the game is played.
CONS: Does not know Virginia and it’s communities. Fiorina is a newer resident of Virginia, moving from California a couple of years ago. How could she know about the needs of economic development in the Ocean View section of Norfolk? Or the need for improvements to Route 340 in Page County? It is also to be mentioned that she completely disrespected the JMU College Republicans for their annual fundraiser after committing several months in advance to keynote the event. Fiorina’s staff did not even notify the JMU CR’s that she backed out in favor of an event in California. Thankfully, Governor Jim Gilmore filled in for her absence.
CONCLUSION: Carly Fiorina is nationally known figure that could make a serious run for the nomination if she committed to knowing the communities of Virginia and the challenges Virginia faces. Not California’s.
4) Congressman Rob Wittman: With experience in the General Assembly and as chairman of the powerful Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, Wittman has the accolades. An all around great guy, Wittman does not have many enemies. He briefly ran for Governor but made an early exit to take a promotion in Congress. Many know he has an aspiration for moving up the ladder into a more influential position whether it be Governor or possibly U.S. Senator. He is from the Northern Neck which brings, along with his bio, an amazing understanding of conflicts facing the Chesapeake Bay environmentally, and the challenges facing those working on the Bay. Wittman has traveled the state while still making frequent appearances in Virginia Beach.
PROS: Very likeable and has a broad coalition of support. Wittman does not have many enemies and does a great job interacting with people. He has a unique background relating to the environment which could prove vital to winning in November against Kaine. A seasoned political veteran, WIttman knows Virginia, its players, and has the chops to take on Kaine. He is a good public speaker and hard worker. He has now added to his repertoire a plethora of experience in dealing with our ports and national defense. He can raise money and has a district that stretches across three different major media markets.
CONS: He’s vanilla and needs a little pizzazz to really stand out, especially in a crowded field. Wittman has done what he has needed to in order to hold favor with a majority of activists which works great for him in a potential convention, but draws concerns from those looking to get things done in Congress. Concerns would be raised by those looking for someone who gets more pragmatic results. A quest for ideological purity could end up hurting Wittman in the general against a tough incumbent in a light blue state.
CONCLUSION: Wittman has the chops to hang with Kaine and would be a tremendous candidate for the nomination and could be a uniter for the party if he, for some strange reason, wanted to leave his Subcommittee chairmanship at this time.
3) Pete Snyder: Businessman, young, energetic, big ideas, with an ability to self fund. How do you not put Pete Snyder at the top of the list? With big ideas, Virginia is craving for someone to address the economic problems families in the Commonwealth are facing. Snyder has the bona fides to carry the economic message not only to his home base of critically important Northern Virginia but also areas like Southwest Virginia where he already has significant financial interests. In his 2013 run for Lt. Governor he came in second place only to E.W. Jackson after hours of voting. Snyder ran his campaign like a business and was everywhere. He was immediate in his support for our nominee, E.W. Jackson, and campaigned for the whole ticket. He has stayed involved with the party, helping raise funds and traveling the state supporting Ed Gillespie.
PROS: Snyder can bring in the cash to fund a massive operation, as he did in 2013. He has the on-the-paper selling points to win since he is a conservative businessman from Northern Virginia who is focused on big ideas for the economy. He can run as an outsider while still maintaining his street cred with the insiders. He has a broad coalition of grassroots activists and breaks many of the traditional Republican min-sector lines. Snyder could bring in some big guns like he did with Oliver North at the 2013 State Convention, and when Gillespie wins the Governorship, he would have a major ally there as well. Snyder could mobilize support quickly as he has inroads with many of the young leaders in the Young Republican and College Republican organizations where he is beloved. A small army could be mobilized for Snyder very quickly should he throw his hat in the ring. Snyder runs effective and efficient campaigns.
CONS: Name ID. Snyder would suffer from low name ID as he would be facing off against opponents that have become more familiar to the broader electorate.
CONCLUSION: Pete Snyder could be the most electable candidate out of this list. He is exactly what voters want on paper and he has the financial resources to make it happen. His points of improvement could be easily fixed, but with as much as he has going in is favor right now he may not even want to jump in.
2) Corey Stewart: It’s simple, you either love him or you hate him. Stewart is now a fixture in Virginia politics following his second statewide nomination run. While Stewart has fallen short both times, he has found a way to somehow do better than most observers would have thought. Stewart does not fight clean, he does not hold back punches, and he plays to win — and that is simple. This approach has caused many longtime Republicans to have disdain for him as well as many not-so-attentive voters who simply saw his facebook rants or the airplane with the confederate flag attached to the back at this year’s annual Shad Planking. A lot will be determined over the next several months to see how Stewart mends fences with (our next Governor) Ed Gillespie, as it is critical for Stewart/Gillespie/Virginia for that to happen. If Stewart is lackluster in his efforts to help elect a Republican Governor in Virginia this year, I believe his Senate campaign will be extinct as he will be a hypocrite for doing what he personally alleges Gillespie had done previously.
PROS: Corey shocked the nation on election night by almost pulling of a major upset despite being outspent. He has a list of dedicated followers and a campaign infrastructure already in place that could easily be transitioned. He highlighted some important issues facing the Commonwealth even if he poorly marketed those issues involving Virginia history. Most importantly, Corey has experience serving in local government where the rubber meets the road. His home base of Prince William County is also a big plus for him considering the importance of that county in winning statewide. If you sit down with Corey Stewart and have a beer it’s hard not to like him personally.
CONS: Electability in November. Corey has made a lot of enemies over the course of the campaign as he has taken his do-anything-to-win strategy across Virginia. His flirtation with white supremacy groups along with ridiculous and false attacks on his prior Republican opponent Ed Gillespie did not go over well with a large and influential group of Republicans across not only Virginia but the nation. Stewart’s campaign for Governor was unorganized, lacked leadership, and was very unprofessional. Throughout the campaign it was normal for Stewart’s representatives to be late, unorganized, unknowing of rules/regulations, combative, and sometimes outright rude to event hosts. As a fly on the wall it was clear: the trains did not run on time. On policy Stewart had absolutely no economic message in his campaign for Governor, focusing only on hot button issues to grab free media attention. There was no sense that he actually wanted to govern but only to protest or attack those he disagreed with. There was no building of a broad coalition of Republicans, but only to secure a small sector of those most passionate about sending a protest vote to (our next Governor) Ed Gillespie. Despite running for office as much as he has, Stewart is still a poor public speaker. His stump speech simply does not flow and has no gel effect, just him yelling and being tough. He was also fired from the Trump Campaign which had a negative effect on Virginia due to his personal actions promoting his gubernatorial ambitions, something that is still not good.
CONCLUSION: Corey Stewart, whether you love him or hate him, has shown he could be a major player for the nomination next year, transitioning his campaign infrastructure over for a Senate run. He has a path to the nomination if he finds an economic message, supports our entire Republican ticket (especially Ed Gillespie), and if Laura Ingraham does not get in.
1) Laura Ingraham: We are living in the Fox News presidency. Whether you like it or not, Fox News is a major driver of the Republican agenda. Millions of Republicans have become even more loyal to Fox over the last year due to other networks’ perceived bias toward President Trump. NOT INGRAHAM. In a time where voters cast aside opinions about whether issues and loyalty to the President and his agenda become the focal point, I do not see how anyone on this list “Trumps” Ingraham. Many remember that she was the special guest at an event for then-candidate Dave Brat when he won the nomination against a great advocate for Virginia, Majority Leader Eric Cantor. As a pillar of conservative talk radio and TV, media personality Ingraham has the potential to capture the loyal Trump supporters, bring in some with the old Virginia Cruz network, and completely pull the rug out from uner Corey Stewart. For those of you who don’t know, our Vice President Mike Pence was once a radio talk show host, too.
PROS: As a national figure, name ID and fundraising could be top of the field. Voters saw the appeal Jill Vogel (our next Lt. Governor) had to some professional women, so Ingraham could possibly follow that avenue as well in appealing to that demographic. Ingraham is well spoken as a radio host and has a stranglehold on the daily thoughts of conservative voters, various conservative interest groups, and elected officials as she interacts with them daily. She has the pulse of a large portion of the republican primary electorate.
CON: She may not want to lose her current gig on radio/TV. Inghram is sitting pretty right now in terms of her current position and she may not want to leave for what would be a tough primary and a brutal general election. Ingraham does not know Virginia. As a national politico she does not have the connections and institutional knowledge of our Republican grassroots leaders, our local industries, or our communities. She would not even know how to properly pronounce Staunton or Botetourt. Inghram would also be viewed as too far to the right by many in more mainstream Republican circles.
CONCLUSION: If Laura Ingraham got into the race and surrounded herself with a top notch steering committee and staff, she could be the favorite to win the nomination.