Five of the candidates vying for the Republican nomination for governor met on stage Monday at Thomas Road Baptist Church, where more than 100 people gathered for a forum hosted by the College Republicans at Liberty University.
Reopening schools, supporting gun rights and rolling back COVID-19 restrictions dominated the conversation.
While the GOP candidates are competing for their party’s nomination, to be decided by a May 8 unassembled convention, they appeared united against the apparent Democratic frontrunner, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who is contending with four others for his party’s nomination in a June 8 primary.
John Massoud, GOP chairman of the 6th Congressional District, set the tone of the night with a message to encourage voter turnout in the November general election, one that raised cheers from the assembled audience: to “show up in such numbers that we cram it down their whiny liberal throats.”
Present at Monday’s forum were Sen. Amanda Chase, of Chesterfield; Del. Kirk Cox, of Colonial Heights; former Pentagon official Sergio de la Peña; former think-tank CEO Peter Doran; and former private equity co-CEO Glenn Youngkin. Two candidates who will appear on the ballot were not in attendance: former Roanoke Sheriff Octavia Johnson and entrepreneur Pete Snyder.
Chase, who bills herself as “Trump in heels,” said she doesn’t “do COVID,” and that her first moves as governor would mean eliminating all current executive orders, allowing people to “make your face great again, get rid of these masks,” she said.
This was a sentiment apparently supported by many of those gathered Monday night, as only a handful of the more than 100 people assembled were masked and social distancing did not appear to be enforced.
The desire to see current rules rolled back also encompassed gun control, with the Second Amendment being a topic that united many of the candidates.
Doran, former president of a Washington think tank focused on European policy, pushed a vision to make Virginia “number one,” seeking to phase out state income tax and advocate for constitutional rights, such as stronger Second Amendment protections.
He said the problem is not one specific law but “the gun-grabbing agenda the Democrats have already unleashed on us in these last several years.”
Army veteran de la Peña — who was born in Mexico and previously served as a Trump Pentagon appointee handling defense issues focused on the Western hemisphere — said disarming populations is what governments do in a despotic regime.
He said protecting Second Amendment rights is “what protects all the other amendments.”
Chase, who said another of her nicknames is “Senator Annie Oakley,” gestured to her purse sitting on a chair behind her, calling it her “concealed carry purse,” and said she was carrying her SIG Sauer that night.
“I will set a Guinness Book of World Record for the number of executive orders I file to take us back to the constitutional plumb line,” she said, and that she will go after “red flag” laws, universal background checks and the ability for local municipalities to create gun-free zones.
Also Monday, the five GOP candidates present unanimously called to fire the Virginia Parole Board, which has been the subject of investigation following numerous reports of misconduct regarding the release of convicted killers.
The candidates present also advocated for all Virginia schools to fully reopen to in-person learning. They criticized critical race theory education in the classroom, which examines the way race and racism influences politics, culture and the law, and has been the subject of recent conversation surrounding education curriculum in the country.
Candidates also pushed for greater school choice, which supporters said seeks to expand alternatives to traditional public schools and provide funding for parents wishing to home school or send students to a private institution.
Cox, a former educator, a legislator for 30 years and a former speaker of the House of Delegates, said he sees detrimental learning loss taking place, and hopes for a return to the “fundamentals” in school curriculums.
“Who better to have as governor than someone who actually has been a classroom teacher and can really solve these problems?” Cox said.
Youngkin, the recently retired co-CEO of The Carlyle Group, said there needs to be more competition in the school system and laid out a plan that would begin with declaring Virginia open — ranging from schools, to businesses, to houses of worship.
On the election itself, he addressed the audience directly, alluding to the fact Republicans in Virginia haven’t won a statewide election since 2009.
“The key is, folks, we must win. We can complain from the sidelines all we want, what the Republican Party has done for the last 12 years is figured out how to lose. We are running a different kind of campaign. We are running a campaign to win,” he said. “This is our moment.”