The Virginia Republican Party’s decision to choose its nominee for governor by convention instead of a primary didn’t discourage Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, in considering a potential bid for the state’s highest office.
Quite the opposite.
“I’m very encouraged to jump into the mix and see if I can influence the outcome,” Hanger said in an interview on Monday.
Hanger, 72, has been flirting with a campaign for governor after 33 years in the General Assembly, where he has built a reputation as a moderate that has withstood three attempts by conservative Republicans to oust him from his Senate seat anchored in the Shenandoah Valley. He has been a target of party conservatives because of his prolonged push to expand Virginia’s Medicaid program, which finally succeeded in 2018.
He is proud of his legislative record, including his ability to work across the political aisle with Democrats, who kept him as chairman of the Senate Finance subcommittee on health and human resources after they took control of the Senate in January.
However, Hanger said he knows that won’t necessarily help him in a party convention dominated by Republican Party insiders.
“I have a fairly sizable base around the state for the work I have done over the years,” he said “Some of that are not the typical ‘go to convention’ people.”
Hanger said he had favored nomination by primary because in a convention “your efforts are placed within the party,” with people who are committed to voting Republican regardless of the nominee.
“With a primary, you broaden your base,” he said.
Reaching beyond the party faithful will be especially important for Republicans facing an increasingly dismal political narrative for winning statewide races in Virginia, he said. “People think we are a blue state and it’s going to be difficult for any Republican to be successful next fall.”
Republicans have not won a statewide contest in Virginia since 2009.
On the plus side, Hanger said a convention will “get the party fired up a little bit” and relieve the pressure on candidates to raise money for a costly primary fight.
He strongly favors a decentralized method of conducting the convention because of the perils of large gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic. “If we were not fully recovered by spring, it would be a bad strategy,” he said.
Hanger also came to the defense of Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, a maverick populist who has offended Senate Republican leaders, among others, with her public conduct, including the cursing of a Virginia Capitol police officer over a parking spot, and political tactics inspired by President Donald Trump.
Chase vowed to run for governor as an independent next year because of the party’s State Central Committee’s decision last weekend to choose a nominee by convention, which some observers suggested was designed to prevent her from winning with a plurality of votes in a crowded field.
“If the strategy was to push her out, I don’t agree with that,” Hanger said. “She does represent a constituency. She has a base of supporters who need to be brought more into the party rather than to be ostracized.”
So far, former House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, is the only announced Republican candidate who plans to compete in the convention.
Others considering bids for the Republican nomination include former state Sen. Bill Carrico, R-Grayson; entrepreneur Pete Snyder, who lost the 2013 nomination for lieutenant governor; and Glenn Youngkin, former CEO of the Carlyle Group.
Hanger expects to make a decision on his candidacy before the General Assembly convenes on Jan. 13 for a session that Republicans have vowed to limit to 30 days rather than the 45 to 46 days that have been customary in odd-numbered years since the adoption of a new state constitution in 1971.
He’s still not sure whether he will “pull the trigger before or after Christmas.”
The party decision to choose its nominee by convention “kind of made me go back to the drawing board a little bit over the weekend,” he said.
Hanger is sure of one thing: he’s not going to change his affable approach to politics and governing.
“I don’t have anything negative to say about anybody right now,” he said, with a chuckle.