Republicans in Virginia are looking for the best way to avoid the fate that befell the party in 2016, when Donald Trump ousted presumptive nominee John Kasich.
Virginia is widely considered the perfect test case for what the future of the Republican Party should look like.
The demographics of the state are strikingly similar to those of Ohio, where Mr. Trump carried the state by almost five percentage points in 2016. And the red state has stood in line behind Trump, voting for him in any major election with impressive consistency.
This has set off alarm bells within the party’s Virginia ranks. They are pushing a new anti-incumbent “kitchen table” purity test – a way to install a strong conservative in a state where Republicans have an overwhelming hold on power and staunch conservatives form a powerful center.
The most prominent leader of this movement is Corey Stewart, the Republican party chairman of Virginia’s Prince William County and a leading Trump supporter. He said his activists are frustrated with a state party that they see as disconnected from the commonwealth’s voters. “The Virginia Republican Party is out of touch, we are not in tune with who is out there talking to voters,” Mr. Stewart said.
“What we have done in Virginia is not working. The Virginia party wants a pro-Trump, pro-life, pro-gun candidate … We need to inject some policy expertise into that process.”
The issues of immigration and guns have stymied a Republican primary since Mr. Trump’s election and Mr. Stewart’s campaign has been predicated on blasting President Trump.
But Stewart’s support from the Trump faithful has not been enough to keep him off the ballot. The state Republican party has rallied behind a write-in candidate to challenge Stewart.
The race isn’t expected to be close, however, and the chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia Bob Goodlatte said the establishment would have little impact on the race.
“When I saw that Corey Stewart filed papers to run for governor of Virginia, I called him and asked him why he was running, if it was for charity, for a few bucks … he never had any kind of coherent answer. And my advice to him was if you don’t have a plan, don’t run,” Mr. Goodlatte said.
Poll numbers suggest the write-in candidacy isn’t an ideal way to attack Stewart’s attack on Mr. Trump. Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis, who polling has shown has been pulling away voters since entering the race, is not expected to get as many votes as Mr. Stewart. While he says he expected a close race, Mr. Sarvis doesn’t see his appeal shifting very much to win over dissatisfied Republicans.
“There are a lot of people who may have been not happy with Trump, are just sick of all of the GOP talking points,” he said. “But are not going to switch to a candidate like mine who is an authentic voice of the middle of the country, of the people who are tired of being told what to think, and that you can’t be real for fear you won’t get elected.”
Mr. Sarvis says Stewart is not unique in aligning himself with Trump in the Virginia elections.
“He’s not the first, he won’t be the last, and the fact that he’s the only one who’s run for Governor, indicates that what I’m saying is essentially working in Virginia, that there’s a large segment of Trump supporters who are willing to put aside their concerns with the nominee for a guy who has campaigned from the podium saying all the same things,” Mr. Sarvis said.
Mr. Sarvis, who has ties to the presidential campaign of Jill Stein, a third party candidate looking to siphon votes from Republicans in Virginia’s special election this weekend, said he has not had conversations with the Stein campaign about his candidacy.
While most party members in Virginia do not want a repeat of what happened in 2016, they are looking at their future races in the same light: To get the most conservative candidate on the ballot, or at least make sure the party gets enough out of this election.
“The people that this challenge is aimed at, are not in the heart of the middle of the middle. And they do not need our help to get elected,” Mr. Goodlatte said. “But they will benefit from the work we do every day to change lives for the better.”