Following conventional political wisdom, Ed Gillespie has the edge in next week’s Republican primary for governor. He has raised considerably more money and is well ahead in polls.
But his two opponents beg to differ. They argue that the state’s first such GOP runoff in 12 years will be a test of who can best motivate supporters to vote in what could be a low-turnout affair. In the aftermath of President Donald Trump’s surprising political rise, they say, nothing is certain.
The June 13 contest pits Gillespie, a GOP activist and former White House official and Washington lobbyist, against Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart and state Sen. Frank Wagner of Virginia Beach.
All are running on platforms that argue the state’s economy desperately needs a jump start. Their solutions – depending on which candidate is talking – include dramatic cuts in the state’s budget, reducing income taxes, eliminating many state regulations on business and/or spending considerably more on transportation projects.
The most recent Washington Post/Schar School poll, conducted May 9-14, showed Gillespie favored by 38 percent of likely GOP voters, Stewart by 18 percent and Wagner, 15 percent. About 1 in 4 voters said they were undecided. However, 6 in 10 said Gillespie, a Fairfax County resident, has the best chance of winning the November general election against the Democratic nominee.
Gillespie’s campaign organization is built on the framework of his 2014 U.S. Senate election effort when he lost to the Democratic incumbent, Mark Warner, by only 17,727 votes out of more than 2.1 million cast. Having been outspent 2-to-1 by Warner, Gillespie is better prepared financially this year.
Gillespie had $3 million in the bank and spent just over $772,000 as of March 31, according to the most recent campaign finance reports compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project. Stewart had spent $401,000 and had close to $410,000 cash on hand, while Wagner reported spending $332,000 and having $178,000 left.
Gillespie has used his cash advantage to buy television ads, blanket portions of the state with targeted mailings, and enlist more staff. Wagner and Stewart have relied more on less-expensive social media advertising and outreach. All three have been crisscrossing the state for months.
The three debated a handful of times, although Wagner and Stewart have criticized Gillespie for steering clear of numerous other requests for joint appearances. Most recently, Stewart and Wagner spoke at a May 22 GOP Tusk and Trunk Club dinner in downtown Norfolk. Gillespie, also invited, mixed with the crowd during a cocktail hour but departed before the banquet began.
The three come to the race after long political careers.
Much of Gillespie’s professional life has centered on national politics, including years as a lobbyist or communications consultant that made him a multimillionaire, and government service as a congressional staff member and White House counsel for President George W. Bush. He also has been chairman of Virginia’s and the national Republican Party.
He played a role in many Republican milestones, including the Contract with America; the 1994 takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives; the 2000 Bush-Gore presidential recount fight; the appointments of Supreme Court Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito; and the rise of the super PAC American Crossroads. He also worked as the paid chairman of the Republican State Leadership Committee, a political group focused on electing state legislative candidates and giving the GOP an advantage in drawing legislative district lines.
Wagner has represented part of Virginia Beach in the General Assembly for 25 years, the last 16 in the state Senate. He was a key player in the 2013 passage of transportation legislation that raised billions of dollars for road projects with taxes and other funding changes. It was the first new source of money for transportation in decades.
Wagner also sponsored a controversial 2015 bill that froze Dominion Virginia Power’s base electricity rate for five years while also blocking the state’s ability to review and adjust the rates if they determined the utility’s profits exceeded allowed amounts. Opponents of the bill, which became law, argued it would allow the energy monopoly potentially to retain hundreds of millions of dollars that normally would be returned to customers.
Stewart points to his efforts to cut his county’s taxes and reduce its administrative budget. He acknowledged the tax cuts came at a time when the economy of the state’s second-largest county was fueled by a population surge of 7,000 to 10,000 new residents each year.
Stewart also drew attention when he pressed for a law enforcement crackdown on illegal immigration. He wanted police to check the background of anyone they had “probable cause” to believe was illegally in the country.
An unabashed self-promoter, Stewart sought attention for his gubernatorial campaign by aggressively supporting keeping in place monuments honoring leaders of the Confederacy. He rejected arguments that the statues were an offensive celebration of an army that fought to preserve slavery.
“I knew it would generate press,” Stewart said. “But it’s also something I feel strongly about. They’re saying I’m defending white supremacy by defending these statues. I’m also counting on Virginians to recognize that’s b.s. … I’m against destruction of history or of art. … This is art that has fallen out of favor.”
Despite his conservative views, Stewart has been reelected three times since becoming chairman in 2006 by Prince William County voters who also have consistently supported Democrats in state and national elections. A majority favored former President Barack Obama in his elections, and backed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton over Trump in the 2016 presidential race.
Stewart and Gillespie each are offering plans for cutting taxes and state spending, although Stewart’s includes more specifics on cuts and – he acknowledges – will cause more pain.
Wagner said raising and spending more for transportation projects is the key. The former naval officer, who also wants to expand career and technical education, said his plan would raise the gas tax in a way that consumers won’t notice.
“Go to gasbuddy.com and look at the price of fuel today in Virginia Beach and look at that price anywhere in a comparable city in North Carolina,” he recently told a lecture hall of students at Virginia Beach’s South University.
When a student found prices were similar, Wagner asked if they would be surprised to learn North Carolina has a 34-cents-a-gallon tax while Virginia’s works out to 15.2 cents a gallon.
“You see, retailers will charge what they can get away with,” he said. “What the market will bear.”
He proposes to increase the state tax to 32 cents a gallon as long as crude oil remains under $90 a barrel, with a smaller increase should the cost of oil rise.
Wagner said a portion of the money could transform U.S. 58 – already a divided four-lane highway – into a limited-access interstate that would open up much of southside Virginia to development and be a new link to Hampton Roads ports.
Gillespie has proposed cutting the individual income tax rates by 10 percent over a three-year period. The proposal is based on assumptions that increasing economic growth would result in the state collecting $3.4 billion in new revenue. Of that money, $1.3 billion would be used for the tax cuts with the other $2 billion set aside for government services, including education and transportation. The cuts would occur only if the state collected enough revenue to pay for them.
Those earning more than $17,000 would see their tax rate drop to 5.15 percent from 5.75 percent. Gillespie said a family with an income of $135,000 a year would save $1,300.
He also proposes a significant overhaul of state regulations of businesses that includes a policy of abolishing or changing two regulations for every new rule put in place. The state’s economy is growing too slowly, he said.
“We’re stuck and we have to get unstuck,” he said, noting that his proposals – if adopted – may take years to cause a significant economic boom.
“I think we can get to No. 1 in job creation and economic growth. But it’s not going to occur in my governorship, if I’m governor. Maybe not the governor after me, but the governor after that. I hope that governor is the most popular governor in Virginia history.”
Stewart wants to cut income taxes while also slashing state spending. He wants tax rates for individuals earning more than $17,000 annually cut to 4.75 percent from 5.75 percent, providing an estimated $2.2 billion in tax relief the first year. He favors eventually abolishing the state income tax.
In his second year as governor, Stewart said he’d seek another $2.2 billion in cuts in state spending and redirect the funds to transportation projects. The state can absorb the tax cuts and road work by finding “billions of dollars” in savings in the state’s budget, he said. Department heads would be ordered to identify cuts of 5, 10 and 15 percent of their budgets that would be used to guide reductions.
“There’s always waste – especially in a governmental organization,” he said.
Stewart is convinced money can be found everywhere, including in education where proponents instead say more funding is needed to address faltering schools. He argues that public education has bloated bureaucracies that can be trimmed to free up more money for classroom teaching.
“Every politician is afraid to cut education,” he said. “Here’s my view on this: The more sacred the cow, the greater the waste you’ll actually find when you audit it.”