I hate to do this, especially since the current election cycle feels like it has been going on FOREVER. But I cannot avoid the truth: the "silly season" in Virginia politics will still be going strong even after the Trump/Clinton battle is over. We’re already seeing this year’s national election affect next year’s gubernatorial race - with major implications for the state’s political pecking order.
The Democrats, at least, are set for next year: current Lt. Governor Ralph Northam will be the nominee. Northam worked a deal last fall with his biggest rival, Attorney General Mark Herring, to avoid a potentially damaging primary battle; Herring apparently likes his current job, since he agreed to run for a second term.
There's still some intrigue on the Democratic side, especially if Tim Kaine vacates his Senate seat to take the Veep spot in Washington. Bobby Scott increasingly seems likely to be nominated by the Governor to replace Kaine, opening up a seat in Congress for other hopefuls in a safe Democratic district. (You can bet there will be interest from former Secretary of the Commonwealth Levar Stoney and/or former state Delegate Joe Morrissey if either or both lose the election for Richmond Mayor.) Still, Northam is clearly the guy for the Dems in the race for Governor.
The GOP is another matter, where four candidates have already declared their interest. The clear front-runner is former Republican National Committee Chair Ed Gillespie. The surprising results of the 2014 Senate election -- expected to lose handily, Gillespie missed an upset of incumbent Mark Warner by just a few percentage points -- were the best possible outcome for the lobbyist and consultant. (Besides winning, obviously.) Since then, his supporters can make the case that he’s the Republicans' best chance to win a statewide race; after all, if he had gotten more support from the national party in 2014, he might have already done so. While he hasn't officially started fundraising, his "Let’s Grow Virginia" political action committee has over a million dollars in the bank, and he has the support of a lot of the state’s most powerful Republicans. He's definitely the most likely opponent for Northam right now.
Still, he'll face spirited challenges from Congressman Rob Wittman and State Senator Frank Wagner. Both are popular in their respective districts, but neither has the statewide profile Gillespie enjoys. More importantly, neither has a clear argument to make against choosing Gillespie over them – the driving "lane" in which they can pass the frontrunner. Either would likely fill the establishment-types role that Gillespie is already filling; Wagner has a reputation as a fiscal conservative and Wittman is not exactly a Tea Party firebrand, with a background as an environmental health specialist. (He has a freakin' PhD, for pete's sake.)
Wittman in particular might have other options; he could consider a Senate run if Kaine's seat opens up, although he'd have to fend off Congressional rivals. (I hear Barbara Comstock’s name a lot, and Randy Forbes needs a job). If Gillespie had enough control over the state party to influence the Senate race (he doesn't), we might have seen a Northam-Herring-type deal already. Instead, Wittman remains in the race for Governor - for now.
That leaves Corey Stewart. Chair of the Board of Supervisors of Prince William County, Stewart not only has conservative bona fides from a dust-up over a strict immigration policing policy a decade ago; he's also the Trump Campaign's Virginia Co-Chair. Stewart is betting on Virginia's conservative Republicans by clearly hitching his star to Trump’s - not a bad idea in a state where the last Republican gubernatorial nominee modified the 200-year old state seal to avoid looking at an exposed breast.
Stewart has to be rooting for Wittman and Wagner to stay in the race. Like Trump, Stewart's conservative support probably has a ceiling; but that ceiling could still reach higher than Gillespie’s share of a three-way split of establishment GOP voters. Unlike Gillespie's other challengers, Stewart DOES have a "lane," and the state's Tea Party members, Trump supporters, and other anti-establishment types could rocket him past his rivals.
This week Stewart put this strategy on display, calling out Gillespie in particular for not supporting Trump with "full focus." He put out a press release on Tuesday that asked his rivals "to join me in a common mission of electing Donald J. Trump — while putting our own campaigns on the back-burner." Over at the conservative blog The Bull Elephant, Steven Brodie Tucker rightfully noted that Stewart's call was "entirely self-serving and self-promoting." Of course he can put "his" campaign on hold to stump for the Presidential nominee; in most respects, Trump's campaign is Stewart's as well.
Whether Trump wins or loses, the influence of his candidacy, and the national election as a whole, surely will be felt in next year's Republican primary. Certainly a Trump victory would be good news for Stewart, although that's looking unlikely, at least in Virginia, as the Commonwealth might be losing its “swing state” status. A Clinton victory, on the other hand, ensures a shakeup in the Senate and, probably, the Congressional delegation thanks to Kaine's promotion. There’s even been speculation about Original F.O.B. (that is, Friend Of Bill Clinton) Terry MacAuliffe stepping down early to take a spot in a Clinton Administration. Such a move would let his Lt. Governor, Northam, look gubernatorial for almost a full year before the election.
No matter what, this year’s national election will reverberate all the way through to NEXT November. (If you think you’re tired of politics NOW, wait until next year.)