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Reps for Top GOP Presidential Contenders Court V.I. Republicans

Republicans Mark Zion, April Newland and Dr. David Weisher of St. Thomas at the Republican State Committee meeting on Saturday. (Zoom screenshot)
Republicans Mark Zion, from left, April Newland and Dr. David Weisher of St. Thomas at the Republican State Committee meeting on Saturday. (Zoom screenshot)

Representatives for the top three GOP presidential contenders — Donald Trump, Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis — pitched their prospects to Virgin Islands Republicans Saturday as the local party held a state committee meeting ahead of its Feb. 8 caucus.

Dr. Ben Carson (Zoom screenshot)
Dr. Ben Carson (Zoom screenshot)

Dr. Ben Carson, the famed neurosurgeon who served as secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Trump, assured local party faithful that his former boss would not repeat the mistakes of his first term, when he failed to appoint Republicans to important positions such as judgeships in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Speaking for Haley, the former governor of South Carolina who served as U.N. ambassador under Trump, her senior advisor Rick Wiley touted her “slow and steady” climb in the polls and predicted that by the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 24, the race will be down to two people — her and Trump.

Ken Cuccinelli, the former deputy secretary of Homeland Security under Trump who now represents the Never Back Down super PAC, said DeSantis has the greatest understanding of USVI issues as the governor of a state that is heavily reliant on tourism dollars and has had to contend with its share of devastating hurricanes.

The stump speeches come as the territory’s Republican caucus on Feb. 8 is set to be the third-overall 2024 presidential primary or caucus. Iowa and New Hampshire will kick things off followed by the Virgin Islands, Nevada and South Carolina. While the territory doesn’t vote for president in the General Election, votes in the caucus count equally in the nomination of the Republican presidential candidate, noted party Chairman Gordon Ackley. The territory will send nine delegates to the 2024 Republican National Convention in July in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, he said.

“The Virgin Islands has never seen this kind of attention from presidential campaigns of either party,” Ackley said in announcing the lineup for Saturday’s meeting. “It speaks volumes about the work we have done in a relatively short period of time to lay the foundation for the opposition political party that our islands deserve.”

Indeed, it has also boosted the party’s coffers, with eight GOP presidential candidates each paying a $20,000 fee to qualify for the USVI ballot.

Still, the V.I. GOP has been beset by internal squabbles, including a recent attempted ouster of Ackley by 14 of the party’s executives, and the meeting Saturday failed to establish a quorum to conduct official business following the candidate speeches after some of the dissenting members did not attend.

Partly at issue is the decision to hold the caucus in February and employ ranked-choice voting, both of which are against RNC rules that allow only Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina to caucus before Super Tuesday in March. The RNC chief counsel’s office has said in a letter to the party executives that “it is reasonable to anticipate that these issues will receive further investigation and be considered by the full RNC.”

Rick Wiley (Zoom screenshot)
Rick Wiley (Zoom screenshot)

However, Wiley voiced his support for the move during Saturday’s meeting that was held virtually via Zoom, with some members gathered in person at The Fred on St. Croix, and others at a private residence on St. Thomas.

“I appreciate that you all have moved your caucus up,” he told the 10 or so members on the call and said he would try to arrange an in-person visit to the territory by Haley.

Perhaps the issue of greatest concern to party members is that the U.S. Virgin Islands enjoy parity with the 50 states — when it comes to federal spending on Medicare and Social Security programs, for example, and the right to vote for president — which has been denied for far too long, Ackley said.

Ken Cuccinelli (Zoom screenshot)
Ken Cuccinelli (Zoom screenshot)

While none of the speakers gave definite commitments, Cuccinelli noted Florida has similar challenges to the USVI, being susceptible to illegal immigration via the open ocean, as well as the vagaries of the weather and tourism. He noted that Florida flourished during the COVID-19 pandemic because DeSantis refused to close down the state to visitors or the cruise industry, or keep children out of school.

Wiley noted that Hawaii also gets short-changed, and that illegal immigration “is a big problem everywhere.”

Carson — who despite speaking softly and without bluster echoed Trump’s dystopian view of the United States under Democratic rule, saying the upcoming election is a fight for the very “soul of America” and whether we’ll have government of, by and for the people or of, by and for the government — actually visited the territory in August and said he found it “so peaceful.”

He voiced his support for healthcare reform and addressing homelessness, particularly for veterans, but said the issue is more than just building housing, it requires diagnosing and treating the causes, which very often are mental illness and addiction.

Carson touted the need to bring back God and the conservative values and principles “that made America a great nation” and that don’t let a 12-year-old child determine their gender, for example, or make white children feel like they are evil, or Black children like they are victims, because of the United States’ history of slavery and systemic discrimination.

As for the environment, green energy is a laudable goal, said Carson, but it needn’t be an “all or nothing” proposition and the U.S. should also utilize fossil fuels. You use what you have to get what you want, he said.

Wiley came closest to criticism of Trump — something the former president’s rivals have conspicuously avoided on the campaign trail — saying he was the right man at the time he was elected, but the nation needs new generational leadership.

“The world is spinning out of control, and it really needs some grounding right now,” Wiley said, adding that people are tired of drama.

“The path is there with Nikki,” he said. “I think slow and steady wins the race.”

Carson, however, said we are “as close to losing [the Republic] as we have ever been. That’s why I feel strongly that President Trump is the right person.”

Not so, said Cuccinelli. Trump raised the national debt even more than President Joe Biden has, he said, and as a result inflation is growing.

“I like President Trump. I enjoyed working for him,” but there was always a lack of follow-through, said Cuccinelli. “It was more show than work.”

DeSantis, on the other hand, “is a work horse, not a show horse,” he said. “He raises all boats.”

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