South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley came to Virginia on Tuesday and said the commonwealth is in bad shape.
Haley — a rising Republican star who has clashed with presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump but now supports the billionaire — stopped in the Richmond area to lend her star power to 2017 Republican gubernatorial hopeful Ed Gillespie at a policy forum and fundraisers for his “Let’s Grow, Virginia!” political action committee.
“I’m excited for Virginia because there is no place to go but up,” she told the well-dressed afternoon audience of roughly 150 at the Hilton Richmond Short Pump Hotel and Spa.
Haley spent some of her opening remarks, and subsequent remarks to reporters, saying Virginia had slipped in economic growth and is no longer the formidable economic competitor it was in the past.
“It’s sad to watch a sister state go through this,” she said.
“You deserve better. Ed Gillespie is going to bring you back. Not just bring you back but lift you up.”
Tuesday’s forum was big on what Gillespie thinks needs to be done, on everything from the economy to education, but with the race still months away, absent specific solutions.
Gillespie did, however, harshly criticize McAuliffe on the biggest policy action of his administration — the decision to restore the voting rights of more than 200,000 felons — as an “abuse of office.”
“I believe in redemption and reconciliation and second chances,” he said, saying rights restoration is “a debate worthy of having in our General Assembly, where it belongs. It is not the prerogative of the executive branch.”
Getting Gillespie elected in nearly 18 months, however, may be complicated by Trump in swing state Virginia. He won the GOP presidential primary in March, but Republicans in the state still seem bitterly divided about his candidacy.
At the recent Republican Party of Virginia convention, conservative party activists ignited controversy by electing a slate of at-large delegates to the national convention that favored Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, over Trump, although Cruz finished third in the Virginia primary.
Now with Trump on a glide path to the nomination, Republicans like Haley and would-be candidates like Gillespie are backing the politically incorrect mogul.
“I’ve never agreed with an elected official on everything, and that’s not going to happen with this nominee, either,” said Haley, adding that the next president’s power over appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court, health care and regulations were reason to back Trump.
“Am I going to align with everything that Donald Trump does? No,” said Haley, who backed Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., in the presidential sweepstakes, before turning to Cruz. “But am I going to align with most of the things he does? Yes,” she said.
“I may not know what I’m going to get with Trump,” Haley added. “I absolutely know what I’m going to get with Hillary Clinton.”
Clinton, the former secretary of state and U.S. senator from New York, has led Trump in polls in Virginia since October.
It has been 47 years since a Republican has not occupied at least one of Virginia’s five statewide offices — governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, or one of the state’s two U.S. Senate seats.
Perhaps that’s why Gillespie is already laying the groundwork on his 2017 bid for governor.
The communications consultant, former Republican National Committee chairman and former Bush White House adviser narrowly lost a 2014 U.S. Senate contest with Sen. Mark R. Warner, D-Va.
“It does seem like a ways off, but I also know how big the commonwealth is. … I know how much effort it is going to take next year in 2017,” Gillespie said.
Republicans will choose their nominee at a convention. Rep. Robert J. Wittman, R-1st, has said he will seek the nomination, as has Prince William Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart, the head of the Trump campaign in Virginia.
“Gillespie’s event today with Nikki Haley won’t hide his full-throated endorsement of the disastrous Trump agenda, and all of the candidates will be forced to defend their support of Trump to Virginians in 2017,” said Emily Bolton of the Democratic Party of Virginia.
Democrats, meanwhile, have all but settled on their pick, with Lt. Gov. Ralph S. Northam already campaigning and raising money for a run at the Executive Mansion, currently occupied by Democrat Terry McAuliffe.
Democrats have carried Virginia in the past two presidential elections. Democrats won the past four U.S. Senate elections and swept statewide offices in 2013.
So it made sense for state Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, the forum moderator, to ask Haley what Virginia Republicans need to do to be successful next year.
Haley, first elected in 2011 and South Carolina’s first female governor, made national news last year when she called on state legislators to remove the Confederate battle flag from the statehouse grounds in Columbia after the massacre of nine black worshippers at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
“You have to go to places that are uncomfortable to go,” she said. “Right now, we sit in our own circles with our own friends, and we think we can campaign that way.
“All you have to do is listen,” she said. “You go and you listen to (voters) and ask what they care about.”
Gillespie has been traveling the state and doing a lot of listening, much the same way his Democratic counterpart, McAuliffe, did after his 2009 defeat for the Democratic nomination for governor, before his successful bid in 2013.
“You have to wage a campaign to all Virginians,” he said. “We have to take our messages to voters who are not traditionally Republican voters, in areas where we do not historically perform well.”