Can Pete Snyder Ride the Trump Wave?

ARLINGTON, Virginia—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.” 

That wasn’t the only page taken from the MAGA playbook Wednesday evening. “Friends, are you excited about meeting Sarah Huckabee Sanders or what?” conservative commentator Martha Boneta yelled at the crowd. “Friends, how many of you wish that Donald J. Trump was in the White House right now?” Hoots and hollers arose from the attendees, who spent Wednesday evening gearing up for an exciting weekend ahead.

The Virginia Republican Party’s roughly 53,000 registered delegates will cast their votes on Saturday for their preferred gubernatorial candidates in an unassembled convention that will take place in 39 locations across the commonwealth. The state party’s decision to run a convention is a departure from 2017, when Republican voters nominated former GOP gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie in a statewide primary.

Wednesday’s headliners kicked off Snyder’s campaign event in full-on God-and-country style. After Boneta encouraged event attendees to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, evangelical preacher Jack Morgan (who previously served as Trump’s Southwest Virginia field director) led a prayer. He thanked God “for Pete for stepping up and being willing, Lord, to join in this fight, to save our state and our country.” Boneta then grabbed the mic and gave a round of applause for the veterans in the room.

Snyder’s style seems to have paid some dividends. A slew of former Trump officials have endorsed him, including former Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Ken Cuccinelli and former acting director of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Tony Pham. Snyder also snagged an endorsement from former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. “One of the things I love about Pete is the fact that he was an unapologetic supporter of [former President Trump] and continues to be,” Sanders told the crowd Wednesday evening. 

“He didn’t start supporting the president when it was politically convenient,” said Sanders, who is running a gubernatorial campaign of her own in Arkansas. “He’s not looking to do things because he feels like they’re politically convenient, but because they were out of conviction of what is right. And that is exactly what we need in this state to lead as the next governor.”

After Sanders spent about 10 minutes praising her friend, Snyder delivered his stump speech, in which he told voters about his plans to reopen K-12 schools in-person five days per week, save small businesses after pandemic induced lockdowns, and restore Virginians’ constitutional rights.

Saturday’s convention will be a temperature check on Republican voters in Virginia, where no GOP candidate has won a statewide race since former Gov. Bob McDonnell retook the governor’s mansion in 2009. Does Snyder have what it takes to beat a Democrat in the state that Trump lost by 10 points in 2020?

Following his failed 2013 run for lieutenant governor, Snyder has puzzled many political analysts by flipping the script from an establishment candidate eight years ago to a full-blown Trumpist in 2021. “Pete Snyder is interesting because when he ran in 2013 for the lieutenant governor’s race, I think for some people he came across as more moderate in a way, but I think looking back that’s simply because he was eventually beat by E.W. Jackson, that was far, far-right,” said Jessica Taylor, Senate and governors editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “I think he has looked at how to win a Republican nomination really anywhere nowadays, and it’s by appealing to the Trump base.”

Snyder is just one of seven GOP candidates who have thrown their hat in the ring ahead of Saturday’s convention. Beyond Snyder, three other candidates are seen as frontrunners: businessman Glenn Youngkin, former House of Delegates speaker Kirk Cox, and firebrand state Sen. Amanda Chase, who attended the January 6 “Save America” rally that preceded the storming of the U.S. Capitol and recently sued her State Senate colleagues after they censured her for her “pattern of unacceptable conduct.” Army veteran Sergio de la Peña, former Roanoke sheriff Octavia Johnson, and think tank CEO Peter Doran are also in the running.

Adding to the complexity of this year’s convention, the Virginia GOP has opted to use a ranked-choice voting system. If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote the first time votes are counted, the candidate who finishes in last place will be eliminated and his or her votes will be reallocated to whoever his voters listed as their second choice candidate. That process will repeat until one candidate wins a simple majority. 

Most election forecasters say that this weekend’s convention is a toss-up. “I don’t know if we can say there is a frontrunner because this is such a unique, untested scenario,” Taylor said. “Traditional polling isn’t going to tell us what it would be because we’re dealing with a finite universe of people,” Taylor said of the 53,000 delegates who have registered for the convention. 

Other political analysts think the money leads to Youngkin. “All my sources have been saying Youngkin’s sort of in the driver’s seat, and I wouldn’t necessarily be surprised if that ends up being the case,” said J. Miles Coleman, an assistant editor at Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “He’s made no secret that he’s very much willing to spend as much as he can.” 

According to the Virginia Public Access Project, Youngkin has raised the most money of all GOP candidates, nearly $7.7 million as of March 31. Snyder raised $6.8 million, but the  other frontrunners Cox ($1.1 million) and Chase ($700k) trail much further behind.

Virginia’s departure from red territory is a recent trend. Before Barack Obama flipped the commonwealth blue in 2008, no Democratic presidential candidate had carried the Old Dominion since 1964. “All of the ingredients are there for it to be a winnable race even though the state is turning blue,” Taylor said. Virginians have elected a governor opposite the president’s party every single election cycle since 1977, with the sole  exception being 2013, when former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe won after Obama’s reelection the year before. 

Still, Coleman and his team think the race leans Democratic. “Enough things would probably have to go right for the Republicans to end up winning the race, but it’s definitely not going to be a slam-dunk for the Democrats,” Coleman said.

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