After months of shadow boxing, the main Republican contenders to be Virginia’s next governor are ready to get serious.
Republican strategist Ed Gillespie, Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), and Donald Trump‘s Virginia campaign chair Corey Stewart will all speak at the Liberty Farm Festival in Virginia on Saturday, where GOP vice presidential nominee Mike Pence will be the headliner.
All three are considered top contenders to be the GOP candidate to succeed Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat. Virginia limits its governors to one term.
“The Virginia governorship is one of the most powerful in the nation. Many Virginians would rather choose a governor than any other office,” said Tim Phillips, a veteran of Virginia politics and the president of the powerful Koch network group Americans for Prosperity.
“They will be seeing their prospective candidates together for the first time in a major setting,” Phillips added.
Gillespie is an especially strong prospect for what is among the most constitutionally powerful governorships in the nation.
Gillespie is the early favorite to win the state’s open primary and is already amassing the resources he’ll need for a strong showing in November 2017, in the race to replace incumbent Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
Virginia Republicans voted earlier this year to choose their next gubernatorial nominee in a primary, rather than a convention. That process is likely to help wealthier candidates and those with higher name recognition; conventions tend to favor more conservative candidates who appeal to the party’s ideological base.
Gillespie has deep party ties; is being supported by high-profile establishment figures such as South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley; and has a nationwide fundraising network built from being a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and having run for the U.S. Senate in 2014.
Gillespie had been all but written off in his 2014 Senate race against Democratic Sen.Mark Warner; but he shocked party bosses and pundits by coming within inches of victory.
His unexpectedly narrow loss caused some Republican hand-wringing, with a number of operatives kvetching privately that if only the party had shown more faith in Gillespie there could easily have been a different result.
Adding to the intrigue at Saturday’s event — which will be held at the property owned by farmer and conservative activist Martha Boneta — is the prospect of a 2017 Senate race in Virginia that would occur if Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton wins the presidency.
If Clinton goes to the White House, her vice presidential pick Tim Kaine would have to vacate his Virginia Senate seat.
Political insiders will be scouring the Liberty Farm event Saturday to see which rising Republican talent might be well positioned to make a run at that seat.
“It’s going to be a big celebration of Virginia politics, but also national politics,” Boneta said.
Reid Wilson contributed reporting.