RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Five Republicans vying to be Virginia’s next governor pitched themselves as the candidate capable of turning around the party’s losing ways in statewide races during a forum Monday.

Those five candidates, state Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Chesterfield), Del. Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights), Sergio de la Peña, Peter Doran and Glenn Youngkin, detailed their campaign agendas and shared thoughts on several issues concerning Republican voters during the forum, which was hosted by the College Republicans of Liberty University.

Chase and Cox touted their experience in the General Assembly and how it can help them navigate through the legislature, even though Chase appealed to voters with the idea that she’s considered an outsider within the Virginia Senate. The others noted previous failed efforts from Republicans to win statewide elections — no GOP candidate has won statewide since 2009 — and how their position as political newcomers can help attract new voters.

Two other GOP candidates seeking the nomination, Octavia Johnson and Pete Snyder, did not attend Monday night’s forum. Republicans will select nominees for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and some House of Delegates races in a May 8 convention.

Here are a few takeaways from Monday’s forum:

Candidates remain focused on reopening schools

Republicans in the Virginia General Assembly denounced Gov. Ralph Northam’s decision to not add an amendment to a bill requiring all school districts to immediately offer in-person learning five days a week. The legislation will instead go into effect in July.

As of April 20, 53 of Virginia’s 132 school divisions offer four or more days a week of in-person instruction for all students and one division that is fully remote.

The candidates who spoke Monday attacked Northam’s handling of schools during the pandemic, with Chase saying they should have never been closed. The state senator attacked critical race theory — a topic all other candidates on stage addressed — and other efforts to introduce curriculum to expand the teaching of Black history in schools.

Cox, a public school teacher for 30 years, cited that experience as one reason he could help navigate Virginia’s school systems better than the other candidates. Youngkin told the crowd, if elected, he would hope Cox would join his administration as secretary of education.

De la Peña said there was no need for schools to be closed, citing data that shows young children don’t make up serious cases of COVID-19. Health experts and state officials have expressed concern over growing hospitalization rates for younger people.

“Guess whose opened the schools already. How about China. Who created the problem? China,” de la Peña said, echoing remarks made by other Republicans directing blame on China for the pandemic.

Republicans in the race want to roll back Virginia’s restrictions on guns

Doran, former CEO of the Center for European Policy Analysis, said he doesn’t believe there’s one specific gun control law he would seek to change if elected governor. Instead, he called for altering “the gun-grabbing agenda” passed under Democratic control in the state legislature.

He claimed Virginia Democrats urge for “common sense” gun laws and the restriction of “weapons of war” to “confuse and distract voters.”

“Every time we hear Democrats say these words, we know that’s not true. We know by common sense gun control, they mean gun grabbing. We know when they say, weapons of war, they mean violating your constitutional rights,” Doran said Monday. They are using language to confuse and distract voters.” 

Chase told the crowd Monday she wears the nickname a Democratic state senator gave her — Senator Annie Oakley — as a badge of honor. She mentioned her A+ rating from the NRA, her voting record to not approve any gun control measure and that she was carrying during the forum.

“But I carry. And this is my concealed carry purse right here,” Chase said.

Chase said she would “throw out the red flag laws” and universal background checks, and talked against a recently passed law banning firearms on Capitol Square, state buildings.

The ongoing controversy surrounding the Virginia Parole Board is here to stay this election cycle.

All of the candidates on Monday said they would fire the entire Parole Board, with Cox and Youngkin speaking out on high-profile cases following the release of state reports that found the board violated policy and procedures.

“When this parole board scandal broke, I immediately called for a federal investigation. Why? Because I knew that this governor and his friends would do nothing about it,” Youngkin said.

Cox detailed the parole of Vincent Martin, a man convicted in the killing of a Richmond police officer in 1979 and sentenced to life in prison a year later, and how reports from the Office of the State Inspector General substantiated allegations that the board failed to notify the city’s commonwealth’s attorney or victim’s family within 21 days of his release. However, Martin’s parole was delayed amid an investigation.

“This is not some administrative glitch. This is deliberate,” Cox said before reiterating his intention to fire the entire board if elected. The remark was met with heavy applause.

Youngkin criticized former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat running for a second term, for selecting the former parole board chair, Adrianne Bennett, and Northam for not taking further steps to request a federal investigation.

“They are going to wear this the entire election season,” Youngkin said.

Who won?

A straw poll from last night found that 47% of people said Youngkin was their first choice, with Chase getting 25% and nearly 12% for Snyder, who did not attend the forum. Cox got 8% and de la Peña received a little over 7%.

The Democratic Party of Virginia’s spokesman, Manuel Bonder, weighed in on the forum, issuing a statement afterwards calling every Republican candidate for governor “too extreme for Virginia.”

“On stage tonight, we heard support for deranged election conspiracy theories, hard line opposition to any gun safety reforms, and zero plans for beating COVID-19 or protecting Virginians’ health care,” Bonder’s statement read.