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Trump & Run

Will the national anti-establishment backlash trickle down to local elections?

Trump and Run
Before he made it official, presidential candidate Donald Trump spoke to local Republicans at an April fundraiser at The Country Club at The Highlands.
By Jim McConnell

Hours before it fills up with Republican politicians and their supporters, the large white tent is a dead giveaway: The circus is in town.

Donald Trump isn’t yet a presidential candidate when he visits Chesterfield in April to deliver the keynote address at the Lincoln-Reagan Gala, an annual fundraising dinner that benefits Republicans running for local elected office.

The Donald plays coy with the media shortly after arriving at The Country Club at The Highlands, saying only that he is “looking at [a presidential run] very seriously.” But the real estate mogul-turned-reality television star certainly sounds like a candidate when he strides confidently to the dais after dinner and offers his views on illegal immigration.

“What we need is a great, strong border – and nobody can build a wall like Trump!” he says, drawing loud applause from an event-record crowd of 450.

That remark seems tame by comparison when Trump, an avid golfer, officially launches his presidential campaign less than two months later by teeing off on Mexican immigrants as “drug dealers” and “rapists,” while promising to deport millions and build an enormous wall along the country’s southern border to keep them out.

Trump is roundly criticized as racist and xenophobic. Several organizations, including Spanish-language television network Univision, cable-sports broadcaster ESPN and the PGA Tour, scramble to sever business relationships with him. Political analysts predict it will spell the end of his candidacy.

In what is becoming a familiar story for the Richmond-area conservatives who helped little-known Henrico County college professor Dave Brat win a seat in Congress last year, the analysts miss the forest for the trees. Most fail to recognize that Trump’s stance on illegal immigration and his image as a “politically incorrect” outsider both work to his advantage with conservatives who believe they’ve been disenfranchised by leaders of their own party.

As the barely civil GOP war continues between tea party conservatives and establishment moderates, Trump stands on the front line, waving a Gadsden flag and whipping his supporters into a frenzy. But one longtime Republican state lawmaker remains skeptical that Trump’s ascent will have any impact when Virginians go to the polls next month.

“It’s far too early for people to draw any conclusions from presidential polls,” says John Watkins, who has endorsed fellow Republican Glen Sturtevant to succeed him as the 10th District’s representative in the state Senate. “The problem we have now is that people are trying to infuse next year’s election into this year’s election. It’s different. It’s just very different.”

“Everyone thinks it’s Republicans vs. Democrats [in Washington]. That’s not really the case,” Brat says to a crowd of about 150 during a town hall meeting at Midlothian High. It’s one of several similar events he holds across the 7th District during Congress’ August recess.

Brat should know. Since riding a wave of voter discontent to perhaps the greatest upset in the history of U.S. politics – toppling then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor – the Randolph-Macon College economics professor has aligned with a group of conservative insurrectionists in the U.S. House of Representatives. According to its mission statement, the 42-member House Freedom Caucus exists to “give a voice to countless Americans who feel that Washington does not represent them.”

More specifically, its objective is to move the Republican conference in the House to the right on government spending, immigration and a host of other legislative priorities … whether Speaker John Boehner likes it or not.

“We’ve had a pizza party in this country for the last eight years,” Brat says. “We have unfunded liabilities of $127 trillion. Unless something changes, in 11 years all federal revenues will go only to entitlement programs and interest on our debt. [Conservatives] are just proposing to move the ball solidly in the right direction on the budget, but the press labels us as extremists.”

Despite his primary defeat, Cantor wields tremendous influence within the state GOP. Now vice chairman of New York-based investment bank Moelis & Company, Cantor resurfaces in August to endorse Bush during an event at The Jefferson. A prodigious fundraiser, Cantor will serve as a state co-chair of Bush’s presidential campaign.

Following Brat’s town hall meeting, there are murmurs that Cantor and his loyalists within the Republican Party of Virginia are gathering resources for another congressional campaign, but Cantor denies that in an interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

“I am very happy where I am,” he tells the paper.

Cantor’s assurances notwithstanding, Brat’s grassroots supporters are preparing for a “full frontal assault” from establishment Republicans in 2016.

“They’re afraid of Dave,” says Ken Davis, a local conservative activist and member of the Richmond Tea Party. “If they acknowledge that there are more Dave Brats out there, people who are willing to uphold conservative principles and run for office, it will mean that everything they’ve done for the last 50 years is immaterial.”

Prior to last year’s 7th District Republican primary, Watkins made headlines when he predicted that if Brat defeated Cantor, “the tea party will have destroyed the Republican Party as we know it in Virginia.”

Watkins, a moderate, won’t be in office to experience the long-term political impact of Brat’s victory – he’s retiring from the state Senate at the end of this year – but there’s already a battle underway to shape the future direction of the GOP on a national, state and local level.

“The tea party folks know that the establishment wants to marginalize them and limit their influence,” longtime political analyst Bob Holsworth says.

Tom White, a Brat supporter and editor of the “Virginia Right” blog, claims that establishment Republicans are attempting to “purge” tea party loyalists from their ranks by any means necessary in order to maintain control – even at the risk of driving away dependable GOP voters and handing elections to Democrats.

“We’re trained to think there’s a big difference between Republicans and Democrats. There’s not. Most of it is for show,” White says. “I think people have seen through that and are grasping on to anyone who isn’t a D.C. insider.”

Trump isn’t the only GOP presidential candidate whose poll numbers have been bolstered by conservatives’ disdain for the political class. The other two frontrunners, business executive Carly Fiorina and neurosurgeon Ben Carson, are also first-time presidential candidates who are widely seen as political “outsiders.”

“What that points to is a public dissatisfied with Washington and almost everyone who is there,” Holsworth says.

Will that filter down and impact Virginia’s state and local elections next month? Holsworth doesn’t think so. He notes that conservatives had opportunities to seize two seats in the state Senate when both Watkins and fellow moderate Walter Stosch decided not to seek re-election, but “conventional” candidates Sturtevant and Siobhan Dunnavant were able to secure the Republican nomination in the 10th and 12th districts, respectively.

“I think frustration with government exists everywhere,” Holsworth says. “But the level of frustration tends to not be as deep when you’re talking about state and local races.”

© 2017 Chesterfield Observer