We're about to get the 1st GOP election test in the post-Trump era

Jon Ward
·Chief National Correspondent
·9-min read

Amanda Chase’s candidacy for governor in Virginia this year has confronted the state’s GOP with a dilemma that mirrors the challenge facing the national party: How does it reap the benefits of Trumpism but also reduce the costs?

Can it retain voters drawn to the party because of former President Donald Trump and his style of politics, but at the same time push, nudge or maneuver Trump-like candidates like Chase — who are likely to lose winnable elections — out of the way?

Virginia Republicans may have found a way to do just that by using a method of voting that reformers are promoting nationally as a tool to reduce extremism and polarization.

Virginia State Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, right, leaves court with her attorney Tim Anderson during a break in a hearing to dismiss here lawsuit in Federal court in Richmond, Va., Thursday, April 1, 2021. (Steve Helber/AP Photo)
Virginia state Sen. Amanda Chase leaves court in Richmond, Va., with her attorney Tim Anderson on Thursday. (Steve Helber/AP Photo)

State Sen. Amanda Chase is a far-right Republican who promoted the lies about cheating in the 2020 election and has affiliated herself with supporters of the QAnon conspiracy theory and attracted support from militia members. Two close supporters of hers, who appeared next to her when she announced her candidacy, were arrested outside a Philadelphia vote-counting location after the fall election, carrying concealed weapons on them and possessing 160 rounds of ammunition in their vehicle. They have been charged with an attempt to interfere with elections and with conspiracy.

Chase called on Trump to declare martial law so he could overturn his defeat at the hands of Joe Biden.

Chase has been considered a legitimate threat to win the Republican nomination, although in Virginia — where a Republican has not won a statewide race since 2009 — she was widely considered to have no shot at winning the general election and becoming governor.

But the Virginia GOP’s decision to use ranked-choice voting in choosing a nominee on May 8 has cut down her chances significantly. The party used ranked-choice voting to choose its chairman last summer.

In a regular primary, which Chase pushed for, a candidate can win the nomination with less than 50 percent of the vote. All they need is a plurality. So Chase could have won 30 or 40 percent of the vote and gained the nomination as three more mainstream candidates split the other 60 to 70 percent. That is similar to how Trump himself won the GOP nomination for president in 2016 despite winning less than half the votes cast in the Republican primary.

But with ranked-choice voting, a candidate must get a majority to win the nomination.

Here’s how it works: Voters don’t select just one candidate. They list their preferences in order, and if none of the candidates gets 50.1 percent, then, in essence, the candidate who gets the most first-place and second-place votes will win.

Ranked-choice voting works a little differently among various jurisdictions that have implemented it, and the Virginia GOP has not clarified how it will distribute second-place votes yet. Normally, the last-place candidate is eliminated and the second-place votes cast by their voters are distributed, and so on until someone has a majority.

“Amanda may have a plurality, but she is everyone else’s last choice, which dooms her from the start,” said Shaun Kenney, a former executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, Florida, U.S., on Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021. (Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Former President Donald Trump at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando on Feb. 28. (Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Virginia is a state where the GOP cannot afford to indulge the hard-core right wing if it wants to win statewide. The last Republican to win a statewide election was Bob McDonnell when he won the governorship in 2009. Republican Bill Bolling won the lieutenant governor seat that year, and Republican Ken Cuccinelli won the attorney general’s race.

But a few years later, in 2013, Cuccinelli defeated the more moderate Bolling in the Republican primary for governor, and then lost to Democrat Terry McAuliffe in a close election. The next summer, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Republican, lost his primary to college economics professor Dave Brat, who criticized him as weak on immigration and received help from conservative talk radio personalities. Brat went on to win the general election. 

Since those two elections, the Virginia GOP has moved further right as the state has grown more diverse and voted in higher numbers for Democrats. Democratic turnout in governor’s races went from 1.1 million in 2013 to 1.4 million in 2017; in presidential contests, from 2 million in 2016 to 2.4 million in 2020. Republican turnout has increased as well, but not at the same pace.

“Virginia is a bluish state. … Guns, babies and Trump is not going to be a winning election message in the entire state. You have to do more than that,” Daniel Gade, the Virginia GOP’s nominee for U.S. Senate in 2020, said in a recent interview on a local talk radio show.

Gade, who lost his bid to Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, said Republicans need to talk about economic growth and reopening schools. School reopening in particular could be a potent election-year issue in Virginia if any significant number of schools do not return full time in the fall. Virginia, along with New Jersey, is one of only two states that hold elections for governor and other statewide offices in odd years.

The gubernatorial election is a crossroads for the Virginia GOP, said Kenney.

“The best exorcism we could use is a convention floor fight where we finally point at what Chase stands for and pull a Reagan: ‘Those voices don’t speak for the rest of us,’” he told Yahoo News, quoting the 40th president’s famous “Time for Choosing” speech.

“It’s plagued us since Dave Brat beat Eric Cantor in 2014. We either exorcise the demons once and for all as conservatives or succumb to the idea that alt-right nationalism is what Republicans actually believe. Those are the stakes. And we can do it ... provided conservatives don’t split ourselves six ways to Sunday.”

Rep.-elect Dave Brat, R-Va., raises his right hand as his wife Laura looks on during the ceremonial swearing-in photo-op with Speaker of the House John Boehner in the Capitol on Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2014. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)
Rep.-elect Dave Brat, R-Va., with his wife, Laura, at his ceremonial swearing-in with House Speaker John Boehner on Nov. 12, 2014. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

The ranked-choice voting system is a tool that ensures a majority doesn’t split its support in a way that allows someone like Chase to exploit a failure of collective action. And, as a result, Chase isn’t happy about the Virginia GOP’s embrace of the practice.

Chase filed a lawsuit against the state party over its decision to hold a convention instead of a primary, which means voters have to sign up as delegates in advance to cast a ballot. She has also called the party’s delays in finalizing details for how to participate “voter suppression of the almost 2 million voters who voted for President Trump.” Her lawsuit, however, was dismissed in February.

As of now, it appears that the contest will come down to two business leaders — Glenn Youngkin and Pete Snyder — and one veteran lawmaker, Kirk Cox, who was Virginia’s House majority leader from 2010 to 2018.

Chase, meanwhile, has been in a defensive crouch since the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol. She’s also threatening to run as an independent should Snyder win the nomination, saying the convention has been “rigged” against her.

“I think that really ended up being the start of the end for her,” Chris Saxman, a former Republican state delegate who now does political consulting, told Yahoo News. The Chase campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Chase had courted controversy plenty of times before Jan. 6, but the day before the insurrection she did a live-stream interview on Facebook with Joshua Macias, one of the two men arrested in Philadelphia with a concealed weapon outside a vote-counting center. Chase introduced Macias as an organizer of the Trump rally that would take place the next day. And she herself attended the rally on the Ellipse, where Trump spoke before his supporters marched to the Capitol and attempted to violently stop the certification of the presidential election results.

Chase said she did not march to the Capitol, but she has drawn attention for being one of three state legislators who attended the rally. And days after the insurrection, she called the rioters who assaulted the Capitol “patriots.”

“She overplayed her hand,” Saxman said. Prior to Jan. 6, “she was up there … doing quite well.”

Pro-Trump supporters storm the US Capitol following a rally with President Donald Trump on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)
Trump supporters storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

But since the Capitol riot, her official Facebook page — which had over 125,000 followers — has been suspended permanently. Although she still has a personal page, her ability to speak to supporters through social media gave her a way around the traditional methods for raising money, which typically involve asking the business community for big donations.

Chase led in a poll conducted in early February by Christopher Newport University, with 17 percent support, although the poll showed 55 percent undecided, and it was not a poll that measured support among the small number of people who will take part in a party convention.

And it appears that Chase is not popular even in some of the most conservative pockets of the state. She attended services at a megachurch in Leesburg on Palm Sunday, a congregation that had hosted conservative activists for a “Pray, Vote, Stand” town hall earlier this year.

After the service, Chase complained that she had not been allowed to bring her gun into the service, and that she had not been asked to speak to the congregation in the same way that a candidate for attorney general had been.

“Can I be honest and tell you it was all I could do to choke back the tears? To sacrifice so much only to be treated like a third class citizen hurts,” Chase wrote on her personal Facebook page. “The Bible says to give honor where honor is due and to pray for those in authority.”

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