Does Trump’s endorsement trump all?

In the parallel universe that is a Republican primary in Virginia, the outcome these days is supposed to be decided by the company a candidate keeps. That being blessed by Donald Trump ensures victory, reducing the primary to a mere formality.

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U.S. Rep Bob Good, an uber-conservative Republican in the sprawling, largely rural 5th District, is seeking renomination in less than three weeks to a third two-year term, running this time — as he did the first time in 2020 — without the endorsement of the former president.

It is an apples-and-oranges comparison, but should Good defeat Trump’s pick, state Sen. John McGuire of Goochland County, it would be a sign that Virginia politics — long a friends-and-neighbors affair in which party labels could mean little — hasn’t been totally nationalized.

That it may have been speaks to the one-note nature of McGuire’s candidacy. He is fully MAGA; has been since the beginning and was when it counted most: Jan. 6, 2021. McGuire says he didn’t join the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol, but attended the peaceful preliminaries.

And McGuire made his way to New York City as part of the rotating chorus of blue-suited Trump surrogates attacking the state prosecution of the former president for alleged hush-money payments to a porn star with whom he supposedly trysted ahead of the 2016 election.

Never mind that Good, who appeared outside the Manhattan courthouse the same day as McGuire, seemed to get more TV face time than his opponent.

In contrast, that the GOP and Trump are one and the same presumably is OK with Hung Cao, the candidate Trump — from a field of five largely unknowns — is supporting for the U.S. Senate nomination to oppose two-term Democrat Tim Kaine.

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Cao, a retired Navy captain and Vietnamese refugee who lives in the suburban Northern Virginia melting point across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., is not entirely a question mark.

In 2022, he ran for a U.S. House seat in the blue 10th District against Democratic incumbent Jennifer Wexton. More recently, his perceived put-downs of the red countryside generated the wrong kinds of headlines in newspapers read by right-leaning rural voters.

And Kaine, who recently published an ode to Virginia’s natural wonders and might still wince from his loss as Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential running mate in 2016 to the Trump-Mike Pence ticket, is certain to remind RoVa voters of Cao’s supposed NoVa arrogance.

The Good-McGuire fight is being waged on the GOP’s conservative fringe, though because the primary is open to all voters regardless of party preference, could Democrats make mischief in the 5th District as they did in the suburban Richmond-anchored 7th District in 2014?

That’s when Democrats helped topple Republican Eric Cantor, a House Speaker-in-waiting defeated by Dave Brat in a canary-in-the-coal-mine Republican primary that augured the rise of the MAGA movement and Trump’s presidential victory two years hence.

Cantor managed to irritate many Republican voters by seemingly putting national politics ahead of regional and local concerns. About the only time his voters ever saw him was on cable television, often at a posh fundraiser. His sessions with constituents were invitation-only.

Democrats, particularly in Henrico and Chesterfield counties, went into the Cantor-Brat primary hoping for a twofer: Ending Cantor’s career and Brat’s — before it began. But the 7th stuck with Brat until 2018, when he fell to Democrat Abigail Spanberger, now running for governor.

The cities of Danville, Charlottesville and, to a lesser degree, Lynchburg — where Good worked at Jerry Falwell-founded Liberty University before his election to Congress — can be Democratic oases in the vast Republican desert that is the 5th.

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Good and McGuire — and this speaks to the overlooked, get-out-the-vote aspect of this fight — have been elected on multiple occasions to their current and former offices from districts that overlap. Because they share core constituencies, they may have to look beyond them for votes.

Were Democrats demonstrably decisive in the Good-McGuire primary, somehow swaying the contest to the incumbent, about the only thing they’d get out of it is the knowledge they had humiliated Trump through the rarest accomplishment: defeating his hand-picked candidate.

That would generate considerable national attention, raising questions about Trump’s strength, at minimum, in Virginia, which has backed Democrats for the White House since 2008 and where a just-out Roanoke College poll shows him in a statistical dead heat with President Joe Biden.

A Good win would also demonstrate that hometown ties, in an era of boundary-erasing cable news, tribe-inducing social media and fast-disappearing local press outlets, still count for something — even for a candidate who’s skillfully made the biggest, baddest enemies.

Trump, who supported Rep. Denver Riggleman for the 2020 nomination only to see him lose to Good, will not forgive Good for backing Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor, as a baggage-free alternative for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.  

And Kevin McCarthy, the ex-speaker from California who lost his job in a coup, in part, fomented by Good, later a chairman of the far-right House Freedom Caucus of which several Virginia Republicans are members, is taking his revenge with slashing TV ads that promote McGuire.

As for the then-and-now aspects of the Good-McGuire primary: Good prevailed over Riggleman, who has since turned against Trump as an investigator for the House 1/6 Committee, in a district that bears little resemblance to the one in which he is facing McGuire.

Until redistricting reset boundaries in 2022, the 5th District reached from the outermost edges of D.C. to the Virginia-North Carolina border. The new district is compressed, spanning south from Charlottesville to the state line, east toward Hanover County and west to Lynchburg.

It remains reliably Republican but, if a McGuire-released poll is to be believed, appears to be leaning to McGuire.

Battleground Connect, a GOP firm, put McGuire ahead of Good, 45% to 31%, with the incumbent having slipped from 46% in December — when Good became Freedom Caucus leader and two months after he and his pals, seemingly at the peak of their powers, brought low McCarthy.

Also, the Good-Riggleman contest in 2020 took place in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic. If that wasn’t enough to diminish participation, then the choice — by party insiders hostile to Riggleman — of a convention to decide the nomination did.

Fewer than 2,500 people attended, many of them sharing Good’s professed biblical conservatism and inflamed by Riggleman’s decision to officiate at the same-sex wedding of gay campaign volunteers.

Going back to 2017, when he was elected to the House of Delegates, McGuire has run and won in conventions and primaries.

In 2017, he prevailed in a six-way race, pulling 31% with 2,700 votes. He lost a six-candidate convention for a congressional nomination in another district in 2020. Three years later, McGuire was nominated for the state Senate by convention, defeating three rivals with 63%.

McGuire pulled that off with an with endorsement from Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who — unlike McGuire, a former Navy SEAL given to cruising the 5th District in a blue pickup truck fitted with two Trump flags — doesn’t want to be seen as too MAGA.

Unless it’s in his best interest. Then he slips it on. Just like that red vest.

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