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Can the GOP Win a Senate Seat in Virginia?
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Can the GOP Win a Senate Seat in Virginia?

Undeterred by his failed bid for a House seat, Hung Cao considers jumping into an even tougher race.

Hung Cao campaigns for Congress in 2022. (Submitted photo)

One of the few Republican congressional candidates to lose in 2022 but still maintain a strong grassroots following is considering another run for the House in 2024—and maybe even a bid to unseat Democratic incumbent Sen. Tim Kaine.

Hung Cao, a Navy veteran, and Vietnamese refugee, didn’t win his 2022 race against Democratic Rep. Jennifer Wexton in Virginia’s newly redrawn 10th District. But after a surprise victory in Virginia’s GOP primary last spring, Cao mounted a stronger-than-expected campaign and became one of the top House GOP fundraisers in the country.

Winning the Northern Virginia suburb President Joe Biden carried by 18 points in 2020 was always going to be a challenge for a Republican. But Gov. Glenn Youngkin came within two points of winning it in 2021, giving Republicans hope that former GOP Rep. Barbara Comstock’s turf could flip red once more.

That hope wasn’t enough to carry Cao across the finish line: He lost by 6.6 points. 

But given his rise from political unknown to formidable challenger, Cao says he’s weighing his 2024 options. “My wife and I are praying about this,” Cao said in an interview with The Dispatch. He said he’s been contacted by a couple of U.S. senators and others asking him to run again. “There’s people asking us to consider a Senate run and some people say: ‘Hey, you came so close with Jennifer Wexton, will you run again?”

“We’re really humbled by all the push,” Cao added. “I loved meeting people on the campaign trail, but it gets ugly.”

For now, Cao is serving as honorary chairman of a new political action committee called Unleash America, which plans to announce its fundraising team in a few weeks and aims to invest heavily this cycle in Republican candidates for state Senate and House of Delegates.

“I was the 14th largest fundraiser in the country last year during the congressional races on the Republican side,” said Cao, who raised and spent more than $3 million last cycle in his bid against Wexton. “A guy running for delegate in Virginia is not going to be able to raise as much as I did.”

Should he run against Wexton again in 2024 or throw his hat in the ring for Senate, Cao would likely embrace a similar campaign style as he did this cycle: focusing on kitchen-table issues like inflation and avoiding any flirtation with election denialism.

On the debate stage with Wexton in October, a moderator asked Cao whether the 2020 election was “free and fair and untainted” and whether Biden was duly elected—roughly two years after 139 House Republicans voted to decertify the 2020 presidential election results in at least one state. “Joe Biden is president of the United States. If you don’t believe me, go to the gas pumps or go to the grocery stores and that will tell you,” Cao said. “The economy proves it, and inflation proves it.”  

A Senate run would be far more challenging than a 2024 House rematch. With a number of competitive battleground states currently in Democrats’s hands—including Montana, Nevada, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—getting Senate Republican super PACs to invest heavily in Virginia may be a tough sell.

National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) spokesmen have made clear in recent weeks that anyone running will need serious fundraising chops to compete against Kaine, Democrats’ 2016 vice presidential nominee seeking a third Senate term. Kaine had $3.8 million in the bank as of December 31, Federal Election Commission filings show, and beat his ultra-conservative Republican challenger Corey Stewart by 16 points in 2018.

But Youngkin’s 2021 gubernatorial victory against Terry McAuliffe, alongside victories by Republican Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears and Attorney General Jason Miyares, are also reminders that flipping a statewide position from blue to red isn’t completely off the table. Youngkin, Sears, and Miyares are all prospective Senate candidates, though Youngkin could also throw his hat in the ring for president.

“Virginians have shown they’re willing to vote Republican with the right candidate and the right political environment,” an NRSC spokesperson told CNN shortly after Kaine’s reelection announcement. “We’re going to keep a close eye on Virginia and focus on recruiting a strong candidate who can raise the resources necessary to compete.”

Audrey is a former reporter for The Dispatch.