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Navy vet has Trump’s nod ahead of Virginia’s US Senate primary, targets Tim Kaine in uphill battle

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — Political observers have already placed bets on Tim Kaine, predicting the Democrat will glide into a third term as the junior U.S. Senator of Virginia, a state that hasn’t elected a Republican to the upper chamber since 2002.

But Republicans vying for a chance to unseat the former vice presidential candidate say they see an opening with President Joe Biden at the top of November’s ticket. While Biden won Virginia by 10 percentage points in 2020, GOP primary candidates say the calculus has changed with heightened food prices, illegal border crossings and crime in American cities.

“The only person that was better off today than they were four years ago is an illegal alien,” Republican candidate Hung Cao, a 25-year Navy veteran who served in combat zones, told The Associated Press.

Cao has the most campaign money and past experience running for higher office in a general election among the five contenders in the primary on June 18. He also has the endorsement of former President Donald Trump, who stated that Cao would help stop inflation, secure the border and “defend our always under siege Second Amendment.”

Cao’s biography includes fleeing Vietnam with his family as a child in the 1970s. In a campaign video, he compares Vietnam’s communist regime during the Cold War to today’s Biden Administration.

“We are losing our country,” Cao says in the ad, which blames Biden for the criminal cases against Trump and shows footage of border crossings and store lootings. “You know it. But you also know that you can’t say it. We’re forced to say that wrong is right. We’re forced to lie.”

Cao told the AP that Kaine is a “rubber stamp” for Biden, while the GOP base is energized to end Kaine’s 30-year political career.

“If you want the nice guy up there, I’m not your guy,” Cao added. “If you want somebody to go in and kick some tail, I’m your guy that’s going to get this done.”

But whether Cao or anyone else in the primary can get it done is a big question. Political scientists say there’s a narrow path to victory for the GOP given Virginia’s moderate electorate, aversion to Trump in 2020 and Kaine’s salience with voters.

The most recent Republican from Virginia to hold a U.S. Senate seat was the late John Warner, a centrist with an independent streak who last won in 2002.

Kaine won his last race in 2018 by 16 percentage points. He has said he’s preparing for a tough race this year and noted that “Virginians will vote for Republicans in statewide elections,” as they did in 2021 for Gov. Glenn Youngkin.

“Nobody can take that for granted,” Kaine said when he announced his reelection bid.

Still, Kaine’s seat is listed as solidly Democratic by the nation’s three big political prognosticators: The Cook Political Report, Inside Elections and Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia.

“This is definitely an uphill climb for the Republican Party in this state, particularly with a candidate who could be more easily tied to Trump,” said Rebecca Bromley-Trujillo, a Christopher Newport University political science professor and research director of its Wason Center for Civic Leadership.

Besides Cao, the primary candidates include Scott Parkinson, a former congressional staffer for Ron DeSantis who now works for the conservative economic policy group Club for Growth. Jonathan Emord is an author and lawyer who often cites his experience successfully fighting the Food and Drug Administration in court.

Eddie Garcia is a U.S. Army veteran and former Army liaison in Congress who owns a mobile app that serves military veterans. Chuck Smith is a Marine veteran, former Navy JAG commander and an attorney.

Cao stands out for his Trump endorsement as well as his campaign war chest. As of March 31, he’s raised $2 million, more than double what any of his rival’s have, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

Cao also made a decent showing in 2022 against Democratic U.S. Rep. Jennifer Wexton in blue-leaning northern Virginia. He lost the race by 6.5 percentage points in a district that Biden won two years earlier by 19 percentage points.

“I don’t have to win northern Virginia,” Cao said of his general election strategy. “I just need to move it the way I did.”

Cao has not escaped controversy. The Staunton News Leader reported that his Unleash America super PAC made zero campaign contributions to Republicans running for the statehouse in 2023, even though that was the PAC’s stated goal. It had raised about $100,000 in individual contributions.

Cao told the AP the story was “a hit job” and “there’s no there there.” He elaborated further to radio host John Fredericks, stating that the money had to go to start-up fees, lawyers and “compliance people.”

The News Leader reported that the PAC’s expenses included legal fees and money for digital fundraising, a communications firm and Cao’s campaign manager. Cao later told podcast host Alec Lace that he did nothing illegal and that the story was published by a “podunk local newspaper.”

The matter prompted attacks from some of Cao’s primary opponents and Democrats. But if Cao wins the primary, it will likely be a miniature scandal compared to the challenge of winning over moderate voters, said Bromley-Trujillo, the Christopher Newport University professor.

It’s a challenge all of the primary candidates would face, she said. They’ve run campaigns that are mostly to the right of Republican Gov. Youngkin’s successful race three years ago. And she doesn’t expect any to pivot toward the center after clamoring for Trump’s endorsement.

As a candidate in 2021, Youngkin did not disavow Trump but he kept him at a distance. Youngkin also focused on state and local issues, such as parents’ frustrations over pandemic school closures and pitching an end to the state’s grocery tax.

The governor’s race was the most recent opportunity for GOP candidates to win statewide office, with a Republican lieutenant governor and Attorney General scoring wins alongside Youngkin.

Youngkin, however, won by two percentage points. And J. Miles Coleman, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, questions whether Youngkin would have succeeded if the race occurred after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the national right to an abortion in 2022.

“Virginia tends to be a little redder in those odd numbered years because maybe state issues are more the focus or Democratic enthusiasm might just be lower in those years,” Coleman said.

Still, in 2023, Democrats who campaigned on protecting abortion rights retook full control of Virginia’s General Assembly. It marked a sharp loss for Youngkin and his proposed 15-week abortion ban with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother.

Meanwhile, Coleman said Kaine has a reputation as a dad-like figure who is pretty relatable. He’s won all of his statewide races, including as governor and technically as a vice presidential candidate in 2016, when he and Hillary Clinton carried the Commonwealth.

“Virginia is a blue state but it’s not California or Massachusetts,” Coleman added. “And once you get west of Charlottesville there is a lot of Republican turf. It’s usually pretty Democratic, but Republicans can win here if everything falls into place for them.”

Ben Finley, The Associated Press




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