2021 elections

MAGA + Money Wins Virginia’s GOP Gubernatorial Race

Youngkin’s deep pockets will be essential in an uphill fight against Terry McAuliffe. Photo: The Washington Post/The Washington Post via Getty Images

After a unique “unassembled” convention where self-appointed “delegates” voted from their cars at 39 sites, casting ranked-choice ballots to simulate a multi-ballot convention, Virginia’s victory-starved Republicans nominated private-equity executive Glenn Youngkin for governor. He will face the winner of a June 8 Democratic primary, likely former governor Terry McAuliffe.

In a simpler time, former Virginia House speaker Kirk Cox would have been the odds-on favorite in this race, particularly as it was decided by hard-core party activists in a convention setting. Aside from his three decades of experience in public office, Cox is perceived as just moderate enough to help the GOP break its losing streak in the commonwealth (they’ve lost four straight presidential elections in Virginia, and haven’t won a statewide race of any sort since 2009).

Instead, Cox finished a poor fourth behind three candidates who conspicuously pledged fealty to Donald J. Trump and his obsessions. To be clear, Cox wasn’t a Never Trumper at all, but he accepted the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s election, and that was enough to put the RINO label on his candidacy.

State senator Amanda Chase, sort of the Marjorie Taylor Greene of Virginia, finished third after soaking up more than her share of attention during the contest with her loud espousal of maximum gun rights and the righteousness of Trump’s attempted election coup (reportedly, the fear she would win a low-turnout primary led Virginia Republican leaders to select the convention format, as either party is permitted to do under that state’s election laws). The two men who ultimately battled it out for the nomination after five candidates had been eliminated in rounds of ranked-choice voting combined MAGA atmospherics with big sacks of money.

Second-place finisher Pete Snyder, a social-media-marketing executive, was a former pillar of the state party establishment (he lost the 2013 nomination for lieutenant governor to far-right minister E.W. Jackson) who sniffed the wind this year and discovered his inner populist, as the Dispatch reported:

Anyone who wondered what Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Pete Snyder’s closing message would be in the final days before the state convention on Saturday needed to look no further than the banner displayed at his campaign event Wednesday at Smokecraft BBQ.

It proclaimed that Snyder and his “gang of conservative outlaws” are wanted for “breaking the teachers unions,” “making woke liberals cry,” and “backing President Trump’s policies.” 

The free-spending Snyder was endorsed by 2013 Republican gubernatorial nominee and former Trump administration official Ken Cuccinelli, and brought in Sarah Huckabee Sanders to campaign with him. But Youngkin outspent him and had his own MAGA validator in Corey Stewart, the Trumpy local elected official who threw a big scare into the Republican establishment in the 2017 gubernatorial primary. Ted Cruz also joined Youngkin on the campaign trail. Like Snyder and Chase, Youngkin refused to accept the legitimacy of the 46th president, attacked Democratic Governor Ralph Northam’s COVID-19 restrictions, and touted his pro-gun, ant-abortion, and anti-union bona fides.

Snyder quickly endorsed Youngkin even before the final ranked-choice calculations were made. Amanda Chase had exhibited another Trump trait by threatening litigation to overturn the results well before the balloting, and there’s a remote chance she will run as an independent in the general election. But in general, Virginia Republicans seem pleased with their nominee. He is rich as Croesus, which could keep him in the game against the legendary fundraiser McAuliffe. He hails from Fairfax County in the vote-rich NoVa suburbs, an area where Republicans have lost crucial ground in recent elections. And tedious as it may seem to veteran observers, Youngkin never tires of playing the “Christian outsider-businessman” role that still seems to resonate with politician-hating swing voters, such as they are.

The big question surrounding the general election is whether Virginia is now so solidly a Democratic state that its long history of tilting against the party controlling the White House in gubernatorial elections is irrelevant. Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman raised eyebrows by giving Republicans a 25 to 50 percent chance of winning in November so long as they didn’t completely go off the deep end and nominate Chase. Yes, McAuliffe broke the “White House curse” by winning the governorship in 2013, a year after Barack Obama won his second term as president. But Republican Ken Cuccinelli — considered a bit wingnutty for staid Virginia — overperformed expectations. Virginia Democrats will pound Youngkins as a puppet of Donald Trump, and the Republican is not in much of a position to separate himself from the raging ex-president. But he’s got the money to keep it interesting.

MAGA + Money Wins Virginia’s GOP Gubernatorial Race