Gillespie: Confidence and caution

This morning, I got to chat with Jimmy Barrett at 1140-WRVA about the Virginia Governor's race. I attended the Republican candidate’s debate on Saturday, hosted by the Hanover County GOP in Mechanicsville. And the story, as I told Jimmy, was less about what happened about the debate but who showed up - and who didn’t.

Only two of the four major GOP candidates appeared: Virginia Beach State Senator Frank Wagner and Prince William County Supervisor Corey Stewart. Each candidate showed off their strengths (and weaknesses), but it was the absence of frontrunner Ed Gillespie that really defined the event.

First, the two men who did show up demonstrated a clear contrast in styles, if not substance. Stewart is the blowhard who offers confidence and energy. (He summed up his message for the crowd as "I'm a fighter; and I'm a winner.") Wagner is more subdued, coming off as the wonky career politician and businessman who knows how things work and how to fix them.

Wagner is clearly positioning himself as the economy guy, touting his own experience as a businessman and pushing a platform of reducing regulations and investing in technical education and transportation. Stewart's braggadocio probably played better, even for the mostly-elderly crowd, as he promised "the biggest tax cuts in Virginia history" and touted his record on immigration.

Stewart is trying to ride Trump's coattails, even though he was famously fired by the Trump campaign last fall. (Wagner took a shot at Stewart on this issue, almost on his way out the door.) No matter who the President’s preferred candidate is (he's not saying so far), Stewart has at least adopted Trump's political playbook. He threw plenty of conservative red meat to the crowd, with some of his biggest applause lines coming when he talked about Charlottesville moving a statue of Robert E. Lee.

Both candidates had plenty of time to communicate their message and even answer some questions about their past. But their answers were overshadowed by the no-show from Gillespie, who was trapped under something heavy -- I mean, campaigning up in northern Virginia (at least according to his twitter feed) even though, Stewart claimed, Gillespie’s campaign had essentially dictated this particular date and time.

(Debate organizers noted that some kind of family emergency did sideline the fourth candidate, longshot Denver Riggleman. This wasn't good timing for him; he had way more to lose than Gillespie by not showing up. A woman in front of me at the event couldn't even remember his name until a campaign worker reminded her.)

The problem for both Wagner and Stewart: Gillespie is way ahead in early polling. Yes, we need to emphasize the "early," with close to 50% undecided in a January Christopher Newport poll. But Gillespie has much greater statewide visibility than his opponents thanks to his 2014 near-defeat of Mark Warner. The frontrunner is clearly feeling confident enough that he felt he could sit this one out without any adverse consequences.

But Gillespie's absence can also be seen another way: as a sign of caution. As the clear frontrunner, Gillespie has a lot more to lose and less to gain than the other guys at these events. Stewart's potshots are particularly a problem. His arguments with Gillespie defined the first debate, and journalists are happy to portray the race using an insurgency vs. establishment vibe that follows the narrative established by last fall's national election.

The question remains, though, whether Stewart's red meat conservatism will play as well among Virginia Republicans as Trump's did among the country as a whole. As much as the media might overplay the story, there IS an establishment wing in the VA GOP, and they have already decided that Ed Gillespie is their best shot at defeating the Democrats in the fall. It’s hard to see how Stewart can convince them to abandon Ed, no matter how many nicknames his campaign comes up with. (#EnronEd and #ChickenEd were two that showed up in his twitter feed during the debate.)

So in the end, nothing about this weekend changed the underlying dynamics of the race. Gillespie is still the most likely nominee to emerge on the GOP side, with the other guys, mostly Corey Stewart, hoping they are doing more than waging a battle for second place.