Politics & Policy

Rubio Eyes Chance to Sustain Momentum in Virginia

Rubio speaks at Patrick Henry College, February 28, 2016. (Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty)

Purcellville, Va. — “On Tuesday here in Virginia you’ll have a very important decision to make,” Marco Rubio told the crowd of several thousand here at Patrick Henry College. “The decision that we’ll have to make is not just about the future of America. It is about the future of America at its core. But even before you make that decision, we have to make a decision about the future of our party.”

The future of the Republican party may well be decided in the next two weeks. And in a normal presidential campaign, Virginia, where Republican voters lean decidedly toward the party’s establishment wing, would be prime territory for Rubio, who has emerged as the mainstream alternative to Donald Trump. But 2016 has proven to be anything but normal. And the man whom Rubio on Sunday bashed for refusing to denounce the Ku Klux Klan and mocked for having “small hands” is poised to win Tuesday in this establishment stronghold.

“Virginia’s about 30 percent New Jersey, about 20 percent New South, and about 50 percent Alabama,” says former National Republican Congressional Committee chairman and Kasich backer Tom Davis. And Trump is poised to “clean up” in the part of the state that is demographically more akin to the Deep South.

Still, Virginia is a state where the Rubio campaign evidently feels he can do well. In the final five days before Super Tuesday, Rubio’s schedule has put him, at minimum, in two states each day. But on Sunday, he devoted an entire day to Virginia, holding events in Purcellville, Richmond, Virginia Beach, and Roanoke. There’s a good reason for that: Virginia Republicans tend to favor the establishment choice in primaries. In 1988, they picked George H. W. Bush; in 1996, Bob Dole; in 2000, George W. Bush; in 2008, John McCain; and in 2012, Mitt Romney. Rubio is backed by most of Virginia’s Republican establishment, including many figures who joined his team when Jeb Bush left the race. And he boasts a natural advantage in Northern Virginia, a population-dense, highly educated, suburban area that tends to vote for moderate candidates.

What’s more, unlike many other Super Tuesday states, Virginia provides a real opportunity for Rubio to rack up delegates even if he loses the popular vote to Trump. The state has no minimum threshold for awarding delegates and metes them out proportionally based on share of the statewide vote, meaning that Rubio will certainly come away with at least some.

Unlike many other Super Tuesday states, Virginia provides a real opportunity for Rubio to rack up delegates even if he loses the popular vote to Trump.

The question is how many. The two most recent polls of Virginia put Trump around 40 percent, with Rubio in second at 27 percent. Trump has held multiple events in the state, and appeared Monday at Radford College. The college is in Western Virginia’s I-81 corridor, an area that Republicans say will be a major stronghold for him. Jerry Falwell Jr., an Evangelical leader and the president of Liberty University in Lynchburg, has endorsed him and is on the airwaves singing his praises.

According to conservative radio host John Fredericks, who endorsed Trump last month, the real-estate mogul’s message is resonating in Virginia, where rank-and-file Republicans are feeling betrayed by Republican leaders.

“Normally, you would think a state like ours is anathema to Trump,” Fredericks says. “But it’s the opposite.”

#share#One of the things that could make Virginia so strong a state for someone like Rubio is that it does not have a strong primary-voting culture. With the exception of presidential primaries, Virginia Republicans usually nominate their candidates by convention. “We actually rarely have primaries,” says Alexandria-based GOP consultant Brad Todd. “So as a result, the pool of people who participate in primaries tend to be what I would call ‘regular Republicans,’” people who are actively involved in the party rather than those who simply turn out to vote Republican in a general election.

But Trump threatens to upend that.

“He’s able to attract a lot of people who don’t normally vote,” says Virginia Republican consultant Jeff Ryer. Davis, the former NRCC chair, concurs, noting the unprecedented crowds Trump is drawing and the enthusiasm he’s generating. “I’ve talked to the members of the Congress in the various areas and they’ve never seen anything like that,” he says.

That alone would make Virginia somewhat dicey to handicap this year. But the state has no party registration, either, meaning that anyone who can legally vote can choose to vote in the Republican primary on Tuesday, complicating pollsters’ efforts to predict the outcome.

Here in Purcellville, where Rubio’s speech was met with thunderous cheers from the massive crowd of people squeezed into every square inch of a basketball arena, it seemed clear that he is gathering momentum. Rubio was on a tear, cracking jokes — largely at Trump’s expense — and reacting seamlessly to every unanticipated hiccup. When his microphone suddenly came unplugged, he joked it was sabotage. When a yelling protester held up a sign calling Rubio an empty suit, the senator cracked: “Ladies and gentlemen, the valedictorian of Trump University.” He was a far cry from the stiff, scripted candidate who campaigned through Iowa just last month, avoiding news of the day and actively eschewing the fray as the other candidates went after one another.

#related#But whether that means he can beat Trump here is not clear. One thing that will likely help him is the fact that Ted Cruz has largely been sidelined here, according to Virginia Republicans, who say that despite the support of former attorney general Ken Cuccinelli, Cruz has largely been preempted by Trump in the areas of the state that might otherwise favor him. And for Rubio, beating Cruz could be even more beneficial than beating Trump in the short term, because Rubio’s narrow path to victory requires Cruz to get out of the race.

That said, sooner or later Rubio will have to beat Trump, and Virginia is one of a handful of states with the potential to make that task easier for him on Tuesday.

“Friends do not let friends vote for con artists,” he told the cheering crowd here.

He’d better hope the people in the audience have a lot of friends.

— Alexis Levinson is the senior political reporter for National Review.

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