As Donald Trump amps up his attacks on Gov. Glenn Youngkin and Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears while preparing for his own announcement of a third presidential campaign Tuesday, Virginia Republicans are treading a fine line between cautious criticism and continued open support of the former president. Some insiders worry that this complicates their efforts to reclaim the full majority of the state legislature next year, where Democrats still control the Senate.
“Absolutely will Trump be a problem, that’s not an academic question, it’s been proven empirically,” said Tucker Martin, a former Republican strategist who served as communications director for former Gov. Bob McDonnell. “The proof is in the election results, when Trump is on the ballot or in the White House, things have been going poorly for Virginia Republicans. While he was president we could not escape his shadow,” Martin said.
Trump was never a popular candidate – and president – in Virginia. In 2016, Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, defeated him with 50-44% of the vote. Four years later, Democrat Joe Biden won Virginia by an even bigger margin, with 54 to 44%.
While the former president wasn’t on the ballot during last week’s midterm election, he endorsed five Republican candidates. But the only one to flip a district was not on Trump’s list – state Sen. Jen Kiggans, R-Virginia Beach, who unseated two-term Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria in the state’s 2nd Congressional District.
“If you look at the midterm election, Donald Trump is very effective in helping his allies get party nominations; but Trump also creates a backlash in a general election where nominees backed by Trump face liabilities in competitive districts,” said Stephen J. Farnsworth, a political scientist at the University of Mary Washington.
The best thing for Republican candidates in the state Senate to do “is to lay low and hope that this gets resolved without having to take sides on the Trump question,” Farnsworth said.
Trump has been on the defensive since last week once it became clear that Republicans would not win back the U.S. Senate in the midterm elections, and critics have blamed him for the poor showing. Republicans are still favored to win the lower chamber of Congress but their likely majority is shrinking as votes continue to be counted.
In Virginia, Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears was one of the first Republican leaders to openly break with Trump when she said during a Fox Business interview on Thursday that she would not back the former president if he decided to run again.
“The voters have spoken and they have said that they want a different leader,” said Earle-Sears, who in 2020 served as national chair of the group Black Americans to Re-Elect President Trump. “And a true leader understands, when they have become a liability, a true leader understands that it’s time to step off the stage. And the voters have given us that very clear message.”
In the interview, Earle-Sears urged Trump to “step off the stage” before doing more damage in the next election. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” she continued. “And indeed, that’s where we are today… The voters are saying enough is enough.”
While Trump didn’t immediately respond to Earle-Sears’s comments, he took to social media Friday to mock Youngkin – whom he sees eyeing a presidential bid – with a racial joke and to take credit for his election win one year ago.
“Young Kin (now that’s an interesting take. Sounds Chinese, doesn’t it?) in Virginia couldn’t have won without me,” Trump wrote on his platform Truth Social, reminding his followers that had endorsed Youngkin, rallied for him “telephonically” and “got MAGA to vote” for the Republican newcomer.
When asked about Trump’s snipe, Youngkin – who has been traveling the country over the summer and fall building a national profile for a potential presidential bid – claimed to not have seen the post.
“I have to be honest, I’ve been busy all morning,” he told reporters in Richmond Friday. “Listen, you all know me, I do not call people names, I really work hard to bring people together, that’s what we are working on. It’s not the way I roll, and not the way I behave. This is a moment for us to come together as a nation.”
An email to a public relations firm representing Youngkin was not answered.
Farnsworth, the political scientist, said that it’s not surprising that Youngkin and Earle-Sears would have different strategies when it came to Trump.
“Different politicians are in different places. If Youngkin is eyeing national opportunities, crossing Trump would be unproductive,” Farnsworth said. “You have a bit more of an opportunity to criticize Trump if your next political move is within Virginia, as would likely be the case for the lieutenant governor.”
One of the takeaways from the midterms is that Republicans do better when Trump is not a central part of the conversation, Farnsworth said. “Trump has never been all that popular in Virginia, he lost the state twice. So the best scenario for Republicans in competitive districts would be to stay under his radar.”
And as of Monday, most Virginia Republicans have heeded the advice and have declined to publicly comment. Party chair Rich Anderson did not respond to several requests for an interview, and emails sent to Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, and Reps. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, Ben Cline, R-Botetourt County, and Bob Good, R-Campbell County, remained unanswered.
Del. Wren Williams, R-Patrick County, who was part of Trump’s legal team seeking to overthrow the result of the 2020 presidential election in Wisconsin, and Del. Marie March, R-Floyd County, who attended the Stop the Steal rally on January 6, 2021, also declined to comment.
That did not change even when Trump turned to Truth Social again Monday morning, this time taking direct aim at Virginia’s Republican lieutenant governor.
“Never felt good about Winsome Sears, always thought she was a phony,” he wrote. “Now I find out she is. When I helped Youngkin win his race, Endorsed him, and made a statewide TeleRally with hundreds of thousands of people on the call, he wrote me a very nice letter thanking me for the help, and then went on to say, ‘How to win without Trump.’ MAGA showed up big, but wasn’t appreciated. Sorry, Winsome, and Glenn, but we can’t let that happen.”
The former president’s attempt at injecting himself into Virginia politics will likely lead to friction within the party over whether Republicans should move on from Trump, said Martin, the former political strategist. “Infighting is a real problem, you have different camps,” Martin said.
Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, one of Trump’s most loyal supporters from Virginia, was among the first to use her social media platforms to go after Earle-Sears for her candid words about Trump last week. “Overnight LG Winsome Sears has gone from a hero to a zero,” Chase wrote on Twitter Monday. “Her betrayal of President Trump whose coattails she rode is very disappointing, it’s shameful.”
Martin said that Virginia Republicans are in a position where they can no longer sidestep an honest conversation about Trump. “If Trump runs for president, Republicans do have to make a decision on where the party is going, it’s unavoidable and it’s going to happen,” he said.
While Trump’s shadow may not be as deleterious to the party as it could be in an off-year election like next year’s, when all the seats in the state Senate and the House of Delegates are up for reelection, the Virginia GOP will have to come to terms with how closely they want to associate their party with Trump’s brand, Martin said.
“In terms of general elections, when he was in the White House it was impossible for Virginia Republicans to re-introduce themselves. It really doesn’t make the environment any easier,” he said.
State Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell County, said in a phone interview that he understands his colleagues’ hesitations to openly turn against Trump.
“I think it’s no secret that Trump was very widely popular in our district. While there is some concern, I will see how the next couple of weeks play out,” he said.
But Hackworth added that he was disappointed in Trump’s remarks about Youngkin, Earle-Sears and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, another potential opponent in a Republican nomination contest, whom Trump has labeled “Ron DeSanctimonious” before releasing a lengthy statement last week taking credit for DeSantis’s first election as governor in 2018.
“Remarks like this divide our party, and right now to win back the Senate of Virginia next year we need to be united and not take pot shots at each other,” Hackworth said. “I hope the Republican Party will get behind and support a unifier, not a divider. We teach our children to be respectful and not to be bullies, actions like this are not acceptable.”
And Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, views the former president’s verbal attacks on Virginia Republicans as a distraction. “Governor Youngkin and Lt. Gov. Sears were able to win Virginia in 2021 because they talked about strengthening education opportunities, lowering taxes, and lowering electric bills. And that is what Virginia Republicans should be focused on,” Suetterlein said.
In a more dramatic departure from his colleagues, former Virginia Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling didn’t mince his words about Trump.
“I realize there are still a lot of people in the Republican Party who love Donald Trump, but here’s the fact, Donald Trump is an albatross around the neck of the Republican Party, and if the party wants to win in 2024 and beyond it needs to respectfully thank Mr. Trump for his past service and turn the page and move on,” Bolling, now a visiting professor of political science at George Mason University and Virginia Commonwealth University, said in an email Monday.
Trump’s politics and approach to public service were rejected by the American people in 2018, 2020 and again in 2022, Bolling said. “If he is the party’s nominee in 2024, that election will be over before it starts. There are a lot of Republicans who could defeat President Biden in 2024, but Donald Trump is not one of them.”