RICHMOND — Sen. Emmett Hanger, a moderate Republican who bucked his party to expand Virginia’s Medicaid program, is launching a political action committee to boost voter support for a constitutional amendment on nonpartisan political redistricting — and test the waters for a possible bid for the GOP gubernatorial nomination.
Hanger, 72, confirmed Sunday that he is considering a run for the Republican nomination for governor next year as an attempt to broaden the party’s base of support and set the state on a path of “good governance” instead of partisanship.
“I’d like to see us re-establish ourselves as a place in the nation where people look to us as leaders in good governance,” he said in an interview.
However, his first goal is passage of the proposed constitutional amendment that will come before voters on Nov. 3 to decide whether to create an independent commission that would draw Virginia’s political districts for Congress and the General Assembly.
Hanger has created Virginians for a Better Tomorrow, a political action committee that he said will work with other bipartisan efforts to end political gerrymandering of the state’s election districts, as he did with Democrats in passing the proposed amendment in the assembly session that ended in March.
He said he would prefer a redistricting commission composed entirely of citizens — with no legislators — but strongly supports a legislative compromise for a constitutional amendment that would create a redistricting panel that includes both citizens and elected officials.
“What we have in front of us is so much better than the system we have right now; we would be foolish not to support it,” he said.
The public push for the redistricting amendment also will give Hanger an opportunity to gauge his chances of securing the gubernatorial nomination in a Republican Party that has tried three times and failed to oust him from his Senate seat in the 24th District, which includes Greene and Madison counties.
In 2007, Hanger faced opposition after anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist branded him among a group of legislators “as least wanted” in Richmond for supporting a package of tax increases proposed by then-Gov. Mark R. Warner in 2004.
In 2015, he handily won a three-way primary after Republicans failed to force a party convention to oust him for supporting a proposal to create a health insurance marketplace to accept federal money under the Affordable Care Act to expand eligibility for Medicaid coverage for hundreds of thousands of uninsured Virginians.
Three years later, Hanger watched as Gov. Ralph Northam signed a state budget that finally expanded Virginia’s Medicaid program with help from a group of House and Senate Republicans who saw political peril for the party to continue to block it.
One of those Republicans who changed heart on Medicaid expansion was then-House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, whose Republican majority had barely survived a Democratic election wave the previous year. Cox is also exploring a run for the Republican gubernatorial nomination next year.
Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, announced in February that she is seeking the GOP nomination. Former state Sen. Bill Carrico, R-Grayson, says he is also considering a run for governor.
Last year, Hanger survived another intra-party challenge from Tina Freitas, wife of Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, who is running this year to unseat Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Henrico, in the 7th Congressional District, a bellwether district for control of the U.S. House of Representatives.
“I’ve been pretty independent,” Hanger said. “I feel like I’ve been labeled a ‘Mountain Valley Republican,’ and that’s where I feel pretty comfortable.”
He acknowledged that winning his party’s gubernatorial nomination is “a high hurdle for me,” but he thinks he would stand a better chance in the general election in 2021 for a statewide office that Republicans haven’t won since 2009.
“It’s going to be tough for a Republican to win next year,” he said. “With my background and the experience I’ve had, I may be in better position than the others to appeal to a broader base.”
That includes Cox, whom Hanger considers a friend.
“I think he would be a great governor,” Hanger said of the conservative Cox. “It’s a matter of how he might position himself. The base needs to be broader.”
Hanger has prevailed against intra-party challenges primarily by staying true to himself and his legislative record after 33 years in the General Assembly — nine in the House and, after a four-year hiatus, 24 in the Senate.
He runs a real estate business in Augusta County with son Chad, the youngest of five children.
Hanger said he’s still talking with his wife about the personal cost of running for governor and, if he wins, moving to Richmond for a four-year term.
But he said he is dismayed by the political polarization of state and national politics, and the lack of civility that has accompanied what he sees as a push to extremes in both major parties.
“I’d like to pull us back together a little bit,” he said.