Virginia has started to look an awful lot like Illinois since President Obama entered the White House, but Republicans believe they can — and must — win the state in the 2016 presidential election.

In 2010, Illinois political leadership included two Democratic U.S. senators and a liberal governor, while former Republican Gov. George Ryan sat behind bars because of corruption charges. Five years later, Illinois had elected one Republican to the Senate and put another in the governor's mansion.

In 2015, Virginia features two Democratic senators and a liberal governor, while former Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell has received a two-year prison sentence for corruption. But Republicans control the state's legislature and think they can add Virginia to their column in the 2016 presidential election.

"The Democrats can win nationally without Virginia, the Republicans can't," former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore told the Washington Examiner. "If you lose Virginia, first of all that's a crucial 13 electoral votes that really have got to be in the Republican camp. It's part of the southern bloc, although Virginia is much more diverse than other states in the South."

The Old Dominion has just decided to pick its Republican presidential candidate via a primary rather than a convention. Virginia's nominating contest will function as part of the "SEC primary," within Super Tuesday's 12 state nominating contests on March 1. "SEC" is a reference to the collegiate Southeastern Conference's prominence in NCAA football. But no school in Virginia participates in the SEC, and the state's shifting demographics have made competition in Virginia a whole different ballgame.

Gilmore, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, is considering another run for higher office but has failed to register any support in the polls. A prominent Virginia Republican in good standing, he is fast becoming a relic in his home state. In the last six years, no Republican has won statewide office, with McDonnell the last to do so in 2009.

Several right-leaning candidates have come close to supplanting their Democratic opponents, and the party claims to have learned its lessons. Ken Cuccinelli, a former state attorney general, lost the 2013 gubernatorial election by fewer than 3 percent of the votes cast for former Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe. Cuccinelli told the Examiner that Republican presidential candidates looking to compete in Virginia need to have a sensitivity to what matters to voters in different parts of the state. In Northern Virginia, he said, voters' proximity to Washington means they follow issues such as budget disputes, government shutdowns and debt ceiling debates much more closely.

"The one piece of advice is you just don't, everybody in Virginia isn't the same and Northern Virginia in particular, most people I think in Northern Virginia are from somewhere else," he said.

Cuccinelli said he thinks the open nominating contest could cause problems if it allows liberal voters to cross over, while the Democratic side remains uncompetitive.

John C. Whitbeck, chairman of the Virginia Republican Party, said the nominating contest will be a proportional primary, but the party will wait until September to decide the mechanics of how delegates will be awarded and how to keep Democratic voters out. Whitbeck insists the GOP in Virginia has adapted and is prepared to defeat presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

"I'm very confident that the infighting we've seen is going to subside just in time for us to win the presidency in Virginia," he said. "[In 2012,] I think we were too busy worrying about how many campaign signs and bumper stickers we have running around for Mitt Romney, while the Democrats were beating us in the ground game...I think our candidates realize that this time around they got to be who they are and not try to be wishy-washy, back-and-forth on the issues."

He said the top lesson from Cuccinelli's defeat to McAuliffe, a longtime Clinton ally, is that Republicans should expect to get outspent by Democrats no matter who wins the GOP nomination. He also thinks polling in Virginia has nearly become a joke, as hardly anyone expected former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie to come within 18,000 votes of incumbent Sen. Mark Warner in 2014.

Ford O'Connell, a veteran of Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign and Republican strategist who has been active in Virginia electoral politics, said GOP presidential hopefuls need to follow Gillespie's example as the candidate who showed how Republicans could take back Virginia. While Republicans previously took the state for granted in presidential elections, O'Connell said, they will make a much larger push for Virginia in 2016.

A former Gillespie aide told the Washington Examiner that no Republican candidate should discount the importance of reaching out to voters who may not be instinctively inclined to support their campaign, whether the voters perceive them as part of the GOP establishment or the conservative insurgency.

"They need to do what Ed did and that's really court the Tea Party and not write them off," the aide said. "I think [Republicans'] biggest obstacle is potentially becoming a victim of ourselves...You can't run your campaign in retrospect and I think there are some Republicans that have a tough time with that, especially coming off of eight years of the Obama administration."

The most notable Virginia Republican to fall victim to his own party is former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Cantor's dovish attitude on immigration led his detractors to lift Dave Brat, an economics professor, into Cantor's seat in Congress, with the help of talk radio personality Laura Ingraham.

Virginia has trended in the wrong direction for Republicans the past few years. But in recent months, polls seem to suggest the GOP is closing the gap. In March, Clinton led all Republican presidential contenders in a Quinnipiac poll. By April, her lead had narrowed and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was the only Republican to defeat her in a hypothetical matchup of Virginian voters, according to a Christian Newport University poll.

Whether such polling is more accurate than surveys of past elections is unknown, and it's too early to read clearly about whether the GOP's efforts in Virginia will benefit its nominee in 2016.