- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 13, 2016

Donald Trump’s stunning victory has already emboldened his political acolytes, who are now searching for other races to prove his brand of Republicanism can win — and Virginia’s governor’s race is shaping up as ground zero.

Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisor, says he thinks he’s now the front-runner for the GOP’s gubernatorial nomination next year after he backed Mr. Trump, while his opponents put distance between themselves and the billionaire businessman.

Mr. Stewart signed up as chairman of Mr. Trump’s Virginia operation in 2015, well before the candidate began winning primaries and clearing the field of other Republicans. Mr. Stewart, however, ended up being fired last month for going too Trump — leading a protest against the Republican National Committee and accusing the party of shortchanging Mr. Trump’s election effort in Virginia.

“I took a gamble with Trump when I became his chairman,” Mr. Stewart said. “I worked my trail off for him as a volunteer on my own dime. I traveled virtually every single day for almost a year. I got to know almost all his volunteers. I spoke at a number of his rallies, and this is going to propel me to the front-runner for the GOP nomination for governor in Virginia.”

Mr. Stewart will be part of what’s shaping up as a crowded, high-powered field. Former Bush White House adviser Ed Gillespie, state Sen. Frank Wagner and Rep. Robert J. Wittman have all shown interest — though some operatives say Mr. Wittman may forgo a bid and instead enjoy the GOP’s control of the House, Senate and White House.

Mr. Gillespie and Mr. Wagner, who officially kicked off his campaign last week, could not be reached for comment. A spokesperson for Mr. Wittman said the congressman is considering where he can best serve, said his plans have not changed “as of now” and passed on the chance to weigh in on the Trump effect.

“It’s really too soon to know. Any response right now would be conjecture,” said Wittman spokesperson Farahn Morgan.

Other veteran political observers, though, say candidates both inside and outside Virginia recognize the importance of courting the voters that helped port Mr. Trump to victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

“I think that all these candidates now in the primary are paranoid about losing the Trump movement voters in Virginia, and so they are going to have to find a way to appeal to those people,” said John Fredericks, who ran Trump’s Virginia operation after Mr. Stewart was canned. “All the candidates have worked to win over Trump voters. The one who figures it out is going to be the nominee.”

But there is a subplot in Virginia: Mr. Trump lost the state to Mrs. Clinton on his way to capturing the White House, raising questions about whether the Trump brand is less resonant in the Old Dominion.

“The Trump message, after all, was less effective in Virginia than elsewhere,” said Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political affairs at the University of Mary Washington. “When you think about the Virginia economy, it is not nearly as dependent on traditional manufacturing than it is in places like the Midwest. The Trump message never could have been as effective in Hampton Roads [as] it was in central Ohio.”

Mr. Farnsworth said Mr. Stewart, who earned national headlines for his anti-illegal immigration efforts in Northern Virginia, likely has the inside track of Trump backers because he “has more of a claim on angry voters than other Republicans who said they are going to run.”

“But at the same time, Ed Gillespie’s near-victory against Mark Warner two years ago may suggest to some Republicans that Gillespie is the smart choice,” he said.

Mr. Fredericks agreed that Mr. Gillespie faces more of an uphill climb with Trump voters, but said there are lingering concerns about Mr. Stewart as well.

“Corey Stewart was there from Day One, but the problem was that Corey often did things that were counter to helping Trump gain votes, and his Trump chairmanship was subservient to his gubernatorial race, and he often prioritized the need of [the] gubernatorial campaign over the needs of the Trump campaign,” he said.

Mr. Stewart has a different view.

“Everyone knows I got canned because I was protesting the RNC and Republican establishment for not supporting Trump enough,” he said. “Everybody knows that, and everybody respects that I wouldn’t back down.”

Whatever the case, it is clear that Mr. Stewart is casting himself as being cut from the same cloth as Mr. Trump. He’s even taken a page out of the president-elect’s campaign playbook by branding Mr. Gillespie “Establishment Ed.”

“My message was Trump’s message before it was Trump’s message,” he said. “The crackdown on illegal immigration is something I have been leading on for almost 10 years. I am going to be working together with the Trump administration to implement the Trump agenda on the state level.

“What I mean by that is a lot of the reforms from illegal immigration to health care will require the cooperation of the states, and I want Virginia to lead on the implementation of the Trump agenda on the state level,” he said.

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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