Even before President Trump was sworn in on the steps of the U.S. Capitol last week, the first test of the future of Trumpism was already playing out to the south, across the river, in the Republican governor’s race in Virginia.
Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors and a former state chairman for Mr. Trump’s campaign, is proudly carrying the Trump flag into the race, saying Virginia is ripe for the same kind of anti-establishment backlash that shook up last year’s presidential contest.
Mr. Stewart’s Republican opponent, the front-runner in early polling, is Ed Gillespie, a longtime fixture in Washington, including stints running the Republican National Committee and serving as a counselor to President George W. Bush.
The Democratic race is just as compelling, with a liberal former congressman running against the more moderate lieutenant governor in what is shaping up as a test of whether Sen. Bernard Sanders’ brand of politics will play in Virginia.
The Old Dominion showdown is one of just two governor’s races this year, and Virginia — a Republican bastion at the national level for decades before flipping Democratic in the past three presidential elections — has turned into one of the nation’s most intriguing states.
“This is a not going to be a typical campaign for governor,” Mr. Stewart said this week at a campaign stop in Northern Virginia. “This is not going to be about usual political talk that everybody is tired of. Why did Trump win, and why did we win as Republicans? Because as Republicans, we chose the quintessential anti-establishment candidate in Donald Trump.”
Mr. Stewart said that is the role he plays this year.
Mr. Gillespie has run on a more traditional Republican message, criticizing Democrats for pursuing a big-government agenda and vowing to reboot the state’s economy.
“If Gillespie does win the nomination and the governorship, it’d probably be in spite of Trump, not because of him,” said Kyle Kondik, of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, is barred under the Virginia Constitution from serving consecutive terms, making the race wide open.
On the Republican side, state Sen. Frank Wagner, a Navy veteran, and Denver Riggleman, an Air Force veteran and owner of a whiskey distillery, are also seeking the party’s nomination.
On the Democratic side, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam was thought to be sailing to the nomination before former Rep. Tom Perriello surprised Democrats by entering the race.
Political observers say Mr. Perriello has the potential to attract the grass-roots activists who rallied to Mr. Sanders in the Democratic primary race last year. Mr. Perriello, who served one term in the House, repeatedly backed liberal positions despite his conservative Southside Virginia district.
“It is no longer a coronation for Northam, as had been expected,” said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, “Perriello will at least make Northam work hard for the nomination and quite possibly could give a very credible run if he can activate the progressive Sanders wing of the party.”
Polls show the two candidates locked in a tight battle.
In the Republican field, Mr. Gillespie has the lead in early polling and is better known than his rivals after running a strong race against Sen. Mark R. Warner in 2014, nearly toppling the Democrat.
Mr. Gillespie may benefit from the party’s decision to hold a primary election, which attracts a more diverse electorate instead of a convention, where conservative activists hold sway.
“If I’m entrusted with the governorship of the commonwealth we love, I promise you this: I will be an honest, ethical, hardworking, principled, conservative servant leader worthy of Virginia,” Mr. Gillespie said this month during his campaign swing through the state.
Despite getting canned as Mr. Trump’s state chairman after leading an unauthorized protest against the Republican National Committee, Mr. Stewart has made his allegiance to Mr. Trump central to his message.
His campaign website features a photograph of him, in a Trump-like fashion, surrounded by coal miners and striking a double thumbs-up pose. His messages on social media and on the stump have been littered with his ties to Mr. Trump, as well as Mr. Gillespie’s decision to keep the new president at a distance.
But John Fredericks, a radio host who took over the Trump campaign in Virginia after Mr. Stewart was dismissed, said Mr. Stewart is “anything but the Trump candidate.”
“He got fired from the campaign after not following directions for months,” Mr. Fredericks said. “He is pushing a fake and false narrative that is not based on reality.”
Mr. Stewart’s supporters say he is the outsider in the contest and contend that he has shown a willingness to lead on issues such as immigration when others would not.
“Corey has that kind of true grit that is needed,” said Cynthia Dunbar, a Republican National Committee member from Virginia.
Ms. Dunbar said it is unclear whether the race will prove to be a true test case of Trumpism given that there may not be as much anti-establishment fervor in the state as there was across the nation last year.
“But if Corey Stewart wins, it will say this in fact is a movement and voters don’t want the same-old, same-old,” Ms. Dunbar said.
Still to be seen is whether Mr. Trump attempts to back a candidate in the race, said Morton Blackwell, the other RNC member from Virginia.
Mr. Blackwell, who is backing Mr. Gillespie, said the Republican has a long history of conservative activism going back to his time as a top aide to former Rep. Dick Armey in the 1990s, when the House Republicans crafted the influential “Contract With America.”