Republican gubernatorial hopefuls in Virginia face a three-pronged campaign challenge.
The blue-trending state that has not elected a Republican for statewide office since 2009, putting the party on defense right off the bat. The state GOP only recently finalized its nominating convention format, leaving candidates to scramble to organize their delegates and convention strategy. And for the top candidates, shadowy groups launch anonymous attacks that plague their candidacies.
“Politics is — they used to say — a contact sport,” said Rich Anderson, chairman of the Virginia Republican Party since August. “I’ve gone one beyond that. Today, it’s become a collision sport.”
Virginia’s grassroots Republicans have historically been averse to primaries, instead preferring to decide on a conservative candidate in a convention format and wary of Democrats infiltrating their selection process. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, a large, in-person convention this time was not feasible, so Republicans then planned a drive-in convention at just one location in Lynchburg, Virginia, but that also got pushback.
Now, the May 8 convention plan is set: Preregistered delegates will drop off ranked-choice ballots at one of 37 satellite locations across the state.
“It took us from December the 5th to March the 12th over the space of five meetings, three months, to make that decision, which was disconcerting because I wanted to focus on executing the decision,” said Anderson.
Meet the candidates
Ten candidates seek the Republican Party’s gubernatorial nomination, making it one of the most crowded fields of candidates for the state party in years, and include:
- Amanda Chase, a state senator who represents an area southwest of Richmond, has described herself as “Trump in heels.” Chase, 51, has gotten national attention for her bombastic political style. Because she refused to wear a mask on the Senate floor, she was required to sit in a plexiglass enclosure. A bipartisan group of state senators censured her earlier this year in part for saying that those who protested at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 before it was breached were “not rioters and looters, these were patriots who love their country.”
- Kirk Cox, a state delegate also from southwest of Richmond, has had a 31-year career in the state Legislature and is a former speaker of the House. Cox, 63, brands himself as a “conservative winner,” turning his many years of experience into a plus as opponents brag about being “outsiders.”
- Sergio de la Pena, a former Trump appointee to the Pentagon as deputy assistant secretary of defense. The former “conservative [Army] colonel” and Fairfax resident, 65, came to the United States from Mexico as a child.
- Peter Doran, an author and former CEO of the think tank Center for European Policy Analysis who lives in Arlington. The 45-year-old has pledged to phase out the state income tax.
- Pete Snyder, an entrepreneur in Charlottesville who founded a digital media firm and went on to become CEO of angel investment firm Disruptor Capital, has hammered a message of needing to open up schools. In the wake of pandemic shutdowns, he started a charity that distributed forgivable loans to more than 1,000 Virginia businesses. Snyder, 48, previously ran for lieutenant governor in 2013 and recently received an endorsement from former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
- Glenn Youngkin, a former co-CEO at the Carlyle Group private equity firm who has never run for office before and hopes to appeal to a more centrist general election population rather than focusing on hard-line conservative issues. The 54-year-old, who lives in Great Falls, has the ability to self-fund most of his campaign.
“The number of Republican candidates running for statewide office and the strength of the field shows just how fired up Republicans are to defeat Terry McAuliffe this November,” said Andrew Loposser, chairman of Arlington County Republicans.
The former Virginia Democratic governor, who hopes to return to the seat for a second term this year (the state of Virginia does not allow governors to hold consecutive terms), is the front-runner to win the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax is also running.
Anonymous attacks plague candidates
Three of the candidates on the Republican side — Youngkin, Snyder, and Cox — have emerged as the most serious candidates in the race, with the biggest indication of their stature being the largely anonymous attacks launched from outside groups.
“Kirk Cox and Glenn Youngkin and Pete Snyder, they have the greatest resources at their disposal,” Anderson said, “and therefore, that renders him as the target.”
A shadowy “Virginia Commonwealth Fund” super PAC created this month, whose funding source is unknown, sent out multiple mailers to Republicans attacking Snyder for work that his digital media firm did for Democratic national groups in the early 2000s. Videos uploaded to YouTube under the apparently fake name “Darrell Michaels” highlighted past Snyder comments critical of former President Donald Trump before he was elected, including calling him a “racist jerk.” Snyder, like many Republicans, later became a supporter of Trump.
Meanwhile, a PAC called the “First Principles Fund” attacks Cox for being a career politician, and the Virginia Cornerstone PAC, which is run by Republican strategist Chris Jankowski but whose funding source is unknown, started attacking Youngkin for his private equity background and the company’s connection to China even before he got in the race.
Youngkin last month at the gubernatorial forum addressed the attacks, accusing Snyder of being behind the ads.
“These are lies, and the person behind them should be ashamed. And we all know who it is, Pete,” Youngkin said.
Snyder clapped back: “If I ever hit you, you will know.”
Virginia as a barometer for Republicans’ future
Virginia’s gubernatorial race is being watched as a sign of what the future of the Republican Party might be following politically and ideologically as Trump teases a potential 2024 run and aims to keep an active hold on the party. And Virginia, with its off-year election cycle, has historically been a preview of strategies for midterm elections.
In 2017, some blamed Republican candidate Ed Gillespie’s loss on his emulation of Trump by taking hard-line stances on immigration and Confederate statues. The race foreshadowed the 2018 “blue wave” midterm elections, during which Democrats won back the House of Representatives.