WASHINGTON - Republicans in Virginia will nominate candidates for some state and local offices Saturday in contests fueled by a backlash over one state delegate's vote for Medicaid expansion and a battle to replace Corey Stewart as board chairman in Prince William County.
The outcomes of the nomination battles will influence the GOP's direction in the fall as the party seeks to hold its slim majority in the General Assembly and fend off strong challenges from Democrats in local races.
Anger over last year's vote to make Medicaid coverage available to up to 400,000 more low-income Virginians has become a central issue in a district northeast of Richmond where Del. Chris Peace, R-Hanover County, is facing a challenge from Hanover County Supervisor Scott Wyatt.
Peace supporters this week sought to cancel plans for a nominating convention Saturday at Atlee High School in Mechanicsville, looking to instead hold a firehouse primary election in June, which they said would draw a larger pool of voters.
Tom Miller, the chairman of the local GOP legislative district committee, said the convention will go forward as planned, though it appears likely that the results will be contested by either side.
On Thursday, Wyatt continued his attacks over Medicaid, posting on his Facebook page a list of campaign contributions to Peace from groups that supported the measure.
"Del. Peace would have you believe he hasn't benefited from the Medicaid expansion vote, but contributions to his campaign says otherwise," the post reads.
Peace, who was among 19 Republicans to vote for the law, has defended it as a conservative version of "Medicaid reform" since it also called for work requirements. But conservative critics say the mandate is unenforceable.
Del. Bob Thomas, R-Stafford County, and Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta County, are also facing challenges over the Medicaid issue, in primary elections that will be held in June.
Among local nomination contests, the hottest battleground will be in Prince William County, where Stewart plans to step down from the office he's held for 13 years.
A firehouse primary election will be held in county polling stations between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. for Stewart's office, three district seats on the Board of Supervisors and a nominee to replace retiring longtime Commonwealth's Attorney Paul Ebert, a Democrat.
Republicans believe that their 6-2 majority on the county board is in jeopardy after a blue wave in 2017 that brought 15 new Democrats to the House of Delegates was centered largely in Prince William County.
In the Republican nominating contest for the chairman's race, John Gray, a certified public accountant, is following Stewart's hard-line conservative playbook, casting the election as a referendum on "criminal aliens" in the county and a "radical social agenda" in local schools.
Gray says his more moderate opponent, Supervisor Martin Nohe. R-Coles, would cave to pressure by Democrats to end a federal cooperation agreement that makes it easier for immigration agents to take into custody suspected undocumented immigrants arrested for local crimes.
"If he is elected chairman, he will effectively allow Prince William County to become a sanctuary county," Gray said in an interview.
Nohe, a board member since 2003, called his opponent's charges "wild-haired."
"I have no desire to change it," he said about the immigration enforcement agreement. "I'm not sure where this claim is coming from."
Nohe, who is also chairman of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, said he wants to position Prince William County to take advantage of the pending arrival of Amazon in northern Virginia by luring more high-tech companies. (Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Nohe also supports a county bond referendum to fund roads and parks that Gray opposes and that is expected to be put before voters in the fall.
"We're already on the right track," Nohe said. But "we need to do everything we can to take advantage of these opportunities."
Stewart said he is not endorsing either candidate and doesn't plan to weigh in on any of the other GOP nominations for supervisor.
The candidates in those contests are: Supervisor Pete Candland and challenger Ray Mizener, a civil engineer, in the Gainesville district; realtor Patrick Sowers and county sheriff's Deputy Yesli Vega in the Coles District; and, in the Potomac District, businessman Doug Taggart and Davon Gray, a senior political director for the American Institute of Architects.
Former Occoquan District supervisor Mike May is running against ex-County Prosecutor Tim Olmstead for the GOP nomination for Ebert's soon-to-be-vacant office as commonwealth's attorney.
Democrats are mounting campaigns for every one of those seats, with June primaries scheduled for commonwealth's attorney, county sheriff and the Coles, Neabsco, Occoquan and Woodbridge seats.
Stewart said he worries that his party won't be able to overcome a massive influx of money and volunteers that he expects to flow to the Democratic candidates - reflecting the same anti-GOP enthusiasm that he believes was a major factor in his 16-point loss to Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, during last year's midterm elections.
"If that happens again this year, all Republicans are doomed in Prince William County," Stewart said.
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The Washington Post's Laura Vozzella contributed to this report from Richmond, Virginia.