For Virginia GOP gubernatorial hopefuls, post-Trump era starts with big emphasis on ‘election integrity’

By: - April 7, 2021 12:02 am

GOP gubenatorial hopeful Glenn Youngkin talks with people attending a weekly breakfast for Republicans at Golden Corral in Virginia Beach. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The GOP candidates for governor had just finished introducing themselves to members of the Princess Anne Republican Women’s Club when the forum’s moderator realized she had misplaced her list of questions.

Not a problem, she said: “I do remember one off the top of my head, so we’ll go with the elephant in the room. … The elephant in the room is election integrity.”

Not even Donald Trump alleged voter fraud contributed to his 10-point loss in Virginia last November. But the former president’s baseless post-election allegations have nonetheless dominated debate among Virginia Republicans as they prepare to select their nominee for governor in this year’s election.

The four major candidates in the race have all made election laws a top issue, promising to eliminate ballot drop boxes, scrutinize absentee ballots and reinstate photo ID requirements.

Only one candidate has directly tied their calls for more restrictive voting laws directly to Trump’s fraud claims, which were rejected by every court in which they were presented and contradicted by his own attorney general. Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, held a rally outside the Virginia Department of Elections in November as votes were still being tallied, accusing election officials around the country of participating in the conspiracy.

In January, her colleagues in the state Senate censured her for spreading misinformation and speaking in support of the mob that stormed the Capitol — a rebuke she boasts about on the campaign trail.

“Guess what, I doubled down when Democrats asked me to apologize for it, because I believe the election was stolen,” she told attendees at a GOP meeting in Amelia County last week.

Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, speaks to members of the Amelia County Republican Committee. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Two other candidates, Pete Snyder and Glenn Youngkin, have embraced the issue while declining to say whether they believe Biden’s November victory was legitimate.

At a campaign stop in Virginia Beach on Saturday, Youngkin, the former CEO of private equity giant The Carlyle Group, argued the issue should be bipartisan. He compared ongoing distrust of election results among Republicans to the reaction from some Democrats after Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016, pointing to post election polling that found 42 percent of Democrats at the time believed the election was rigged. “It is not an issue that should be pinned on Republicans right now,” Youngkin said. “It’s a democracy issue.”

Not long after he launched his campaign, Youngkin announced he was forming an “Election Integrity Task Force,” which his website describes as “a group of concerned, law-abiding citizens” who will help him “ensure every legal vote is counted quickly and accurately.”

People who sign up will be mailed an official membership card, his website says, though it’s unclear what his task force members are expected to do once credentialed. “They add their voice to ours so we can speak with a louder voice that this is an issue that Virginians are worried about,” Youngkin said of the effort.

Snyder, a businessman who, like Youngkin, has never before held elected office, declined an interview request. But his campaign has boasted about having the most comprehensive plan to address what it calls “skepticism among voters.”

Snyder’s campaign co-chairs, Ken Cuccinelli and Mark Obenshain, dismissed Youngkin’s task force as “toothless” in an op-ed last month, alleging his opponents were just paying lip service to the issue. Among other things, Snyder calls for giving state police a greater role in investigating voter fraud and using tax records to verify addresses.

Del. Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, is the only candidate in the race who has said he believes Biden won the election legitimately. But like his opponents, he says he’d support an array of new voting restrictions, recently voicing support for new voting rules adopted in Georgia, which drew nationwide condemnation from Democrats and some major corporations. Speaking at the Princess Anne Republican Women’s Club, he also promised to create an “election integrity operation” that he said would target certain precincts for extra scrutiny.

“I will make sure — and I will fund this as governor — we have got to have an election integrity operation second to none inside these polling places,” he told the crowd. “And they can’t be in the nice precincts. It’s got to be in those tough precincts where we will make sure we have people who are trained, they know their code sections, they know exactly what to do.”

Asked this weekend what he considered a “nice” precinct and what he considered a “tough” precinct, he walked back the comment, saying he meant that his campaign would send poll watchers to all precincts in November, a common election-season initiative for both parties. He said he had no plans to make it a state-funded effort if elected.

A push for more restrictive voter laws has emerged as a focus for the GOP both nationally and in Virginia since Trump lost in November. Polling by Quinnipiac University this month showed three out of four Republicans believe there was “widespread fraud in the 2020 election.” (A Reuters/Ipsos poll released this week found half of Republicans surveyed believed the Jan. 6 riot at the capitol “was led by violent left-wing protestors trying to make Trump look bad.”)

Republican lawmakers in the General Assembly filed bills in January they said would clear up confusion and “bring transparency to our elections.” The proposals were roundly rejected by Democrats, who hold majorities in the House and Senate. “I’m not very sanguine about any election law coming from your side of the aisle right now,” Del. Paul Krizek, D-Alexandria, said during an early morning committee meeting. “Especially listening to your leader.”

Democrats have instead implemented laws aimed at making voting easier and, this year, made Virginia the first state in the South to adopt its own version of the Voting Rights Act.

“Virginia Republicans’ willingness to traffic in Donald Trump’s reckless election conspiracies says one of two things: They are either completely out of touch with reality, or they are willing to lie for political gain. Neither option belongs anywhere near the governorship,” said Manuel Bonder, a spokesman for the Democratic Party of Virginia.

At campaign stops around the state, Republican voters often listed tighter voting laws as their top priority alongside traditional GOP issues like gun rights. And a statewide statistical audit of the 2020 election results, which found only a 0.00000065117 percent chance the state’s voting system could have produced an inaccurate outcome, has done little to assuage their concerns.

Del. Kirk Cox, R-Chesterfield, talks to supporters at a meet and great at a Chesterfield County pizza shop. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

At a meeting of the Amelia County Republican Party last week, Mary Alice Williams, the chair of the local electoral board, dismissed the effort as “fake,” describing how officials in Amelia were asked to verify just one ballot. She said that while she believed election officials acted appropriately in Amelia and other small jurisdictions, she feared massive fraud had gone undetected in Northern Virginia and other populous localities that overwhelmingly back Democrats.

While Republican hopefuls are quick to point out perceived shortcomings in the state-run election system, the Virginia GOP’s nominating contest this year is a complex endeavor that has fueled heated debate within the party over whether conservative voters will be able to trust and understand the process.

They will choose their nominee at a May 8 convention that, in order to comply with COVID-19 safety rules, will be held remotely with voting locations established around the state. To participate, would-be voters must register with their local Republican committees, which will vet the applicants voting records to see if they have participated in recent Democratic primaries. Each local unit has its own deadlines and registration process, information that in some cases can be hard to find.

The voting procedure on convention day is complex, relying on a weighting process and ranked-choice voting. Delegates will cast one ballot, but select a first, second and third choice for each office. If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote outright, the worst performing candidate is eliminated and those ballots are then counted for the second choice pick. The process continues until someone wins a majority.

Delegate votes from each locality will be weighted to reflect Republican turnout in last year’s election. Under the system, for instance, Floyd County receives 39 votes regardless of how many people there sign up to be delegates, meaning one delegate’s choice could end up counting for either more or less than a single vote.

The insider nature of conventions has meant much of the campaigning has taken place at local GOP committee meetings and events, which attract the people most likely to sign up as delegates and then drive to sometimes-distant voting locations.

Campaign staffers work the rooms with clipboards, signing up potential supporters as delegates. Candidates also call would-be and undecided delegates directly, attempting to woo them to their side.

Chase pitches herself as “Trump in heels.” Snyder, who made an unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor in 2013, has positioned himself as an outsider. Cox and Youngkin have both stressed their electability in the general election, with Cox’s campaign in particular pitching him as a sensible second-place choice who could win in November, potentially paving the way for future runs by candidates with narrower general election appeal.

“I’ve shown a Republican can win in a tough district,” Cox, who holds the bluest district of any GOP member of the House, said at a meet-and-greet his campaign hosted Saturday at a pizza shop in Chesterfield.

Likewise, Youngkin describes himself as someone who can unify the party, which appeared badly fractured this year as GOP leaders struggled to even agree on how to nominate their candidate. “What I’m hearing all over the place is ‘Glenn bring us together,’” Youngkin said at a recent campaign stop at a Golden Corral in Virginia Beach. “Bring us together so we can win.”

GOP gubenatorial hopeful Glenn Youngkin speaks at a weekly breakfast for Republicans at a Golden Corral in Virginia Beach. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

In addition to Chase, Cox, Snyder and Youngking, three other candidates are on the ballot, though they’ve had a limited presence on the campaign trail: Sergio de la Peña, a former Department of Defense official under Trump; Peter Doran, a businessman and author; and Octavia Johnson, the former sheriff of Roanoke.

Virginia’s governor’s race, one of only two statewide elections scheduled this year, is closely watched as a national bellwether. And with the state’s history of electing governors who represent the party that lost the prior year’s presidential election, Republicans view it as their best shot in years to reverse a losing streak in statewide elections that’s lasted more than a decade.

It’s not clear electability is top of mind for would-be delegates, many of whom bristle when asked if candidates’ general-election prospects factor into who they decide to support.

“These are my values and my views,” said Larry Tyler, who wore a blaze-orange Amanda Chase hat as Youngkin spoke Saturday. “I don’t lower my standards.”

The ranked-choice voting the convention will facilitate, however, could allow delegates to have it both ways. Lisa Bond, a retired preschool teacher, said she also planned to back Chase because “she believes what I believe,” but later whispered to a reporter that she planned to put Youngkin down for her second choice. Why? “Because I think he can win.”

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.