Can a Republican Retake Virginia’s Governor’s Mansion?

GOP candidate Pete Snyder is hoping that failed leadership in Richmond will push Virginian voters rightward.

MIDLOTHIAN, Virginia—It was a crowded evening at Steam Bell Beer Works last Wednesday. A surprising 100 or so people turned out, despite the rain. Attendees sipped beers and chatted among themselves as they geared up for the main event: GOP gubernatorial candidate Pete Snyder. 

“I think he's probably one of the more electable candidates we've had in a long time for statewide office,” said Chuck Fadus, who hails from Midlothian, before Snyder spoke. “I will just say—I'm not going to mention my source, it's very good—that there are a lot of Democrats right now, very disaffected with the way the party’s going. The radical shift to the left is blowing the other more moderate Democrats out of the water, and they want to help.”

With five weeks until the convention, Snyder has racked up endorsements from a slew of high profile GOP insiders: former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, and Trump’s entire immigration team. “He has always been a true staunch conservative, but not just his policy positions. He's committed to the party itself,” Tony Pham, event attendee and former acting director of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement under the Trump administration, told The Dispatch. “I wasn't really excited about this gubernatorial race until Pete announced.”

Snyder has spent the past 25 years dipping his toes in Republican Party politics. After graduating from William and Mary, he worked for former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s 1997 New York City mayoral campaign and founded social media agency New Media Strategies two years later at age 26, which he sold in 2011 for $30 million. In 2012, he founded angel investment firm Disruptor Capital and had a brief stint as a Fox News contributor. 

He meandered his way back into GOP politics a year later, running unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor of Virginia in 2013, and later serving as campaign chairman for former GOP candidate Ed Gillespie’s failed 2017 gubernatorial campaign.

Snyder entered Steam Bell Beer Works at around 7:20 p.m., clad in jeans, a checkered shirt, and a vest. He’s campaigning in enemy territory—Midlothian, Virginia—a 30-minute drive from the districts of two of his biggest primary competitors on the right side of the aisle: state Delegate Kirk Cox and state Sen. Amanda Chase. “Now I gotta tell ya, you’ve gotta go to the gun shows,” one attendee tells Snyder as the candidate is making his rounds before the event kicks off. “Amanda Chase is at the gun shows.”

Snyder grabbed the microphone and began his speech. “I would say if you look at Tom and Connie and Brittany,” referencing the owners of the brewery, “the American dream—no matter how much it’s under attack right now—is still alive and kickin’, isn’t it?”

He then took a hit at Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s past scandals and the “extremists he surrounds himself with” in the state legislature. “What happened this past year, what happened to all of us is the worst thing that's happened to Virginia in our country over 100 years.  The fools in charge—Ralph Northam? I have a bet, which one in the picture was he?” 

Snyder was referencing the governor’s 1984 medical school yearbook photo that surfaced in 2019, which shows a pair of men dressed in blackface and a Ku Klux Klan outfit next to other photos of Northam. It gets the reaction he’s hoping for. “The one on the left!” a man yells from the crowd, implying that Northam is the man in blackface. “Exactly,” Snyder laughs in agreement, “The one on the left.” 

His digs at Northam segued into a long spiel about shuttered schools. “We’re going to number one, on day one, open up all of our schools immediately, five days a week, every week with the teacher in every class or not this Zoom babysitting service that they’re trying to do.” 

For Snyder, school closures could be a Republican’s golden ticket into the governor’s mansion. “In Northern Virginia, you're paying what, a million bucks or $900,000 or $1.2 million for a small house, but you do it to be in a school district that is good to help your kids out, and you’re paying taxes through the nose and you're not getting the product,” Snyder told The Dispatch in early March.

GOP reforms wouldn’t stop once students are back in the classroom with Snyder in the governor’s mansion. “Anybody hear of this nutty critical race theory stuff that they’re trying to get in our schools?” A loud chorus of boos from the crowd. “How about the 1619 Project? Under Governor Snyder, we're not having any of that. None. And I got to tell you, not only are we not to have a 1619 Project, I have an idea. How about the 1776 Project? And civics? And I know this is hard. It's so hard, but we’re actually going to teach U.S. history, right?”

The rest of the speech was a shopping list of conservative priorities: reinvigorating Virginians’ small businesses, Second Amendment rights, religious liberties, and police departments. “The coronavirus: it kills people,” Snyder says. “It does that in the hospital. But the coronavirus did not kill our economy. Our government did.” He then pushed back again on the abortion lobby and the “extremist” radicals in Richmond. “David is gonna beat Goliath, Pete is gonna beat Terry, and we’re gonna have conservative governors in Richmond again.”

In fact, no Republican has won a statewide race since former Gov. Bob McDonnell’s 2009 victory. What was once a reliable GOP state has since flipped blue, in part due to the rise of college-educated voters, increasingly wealthy and diverse Northern Virginia suburbs, and thriving cities across the state. Snyder is hopeful he can change that.

“I've had a pretty successful business career,”  Snyder, 48, told The Dispatch last month. “I rang the bell on Wall Street, I’ve been able to negotiate eight or nine figure deals, but I’ve also been able to make the time to care ... to show up to my local unit meeting, to participate in helping get conservatives elected for the past 25 years, because it matters. What we do in the movement matters, and anyone that says that you can’t do both is wrong.”

And so Snyder is optimistic about Republicans’ chances in 2021. “I think that while this is going to be a horrible, horrible year for America and for Virginia, it will be an amazing political year for conservatives,” he said, later adding that Democrats in both in Washington and Richmond have been focused on “getting rid of balloons and Styrofoam and legalizing pot and making it a misdemeanor to assault the police officer, not on opening up our schools and helping to save small business in our economy or really protecting the rights of law-abiding citizens.” 

“I truly believe we have the tremors of an earthquake starting, and it’s starting in Northern Virginia and sweeping all across Virginia.” He mentioned Fairfax County, Prince William County, Loudoun County, Arlington, and even Alexandria as possible bright spots for GOP candidates this election cycle. “We have an opportunity as Republicans to talk to people who haven't given us the time of day in 10 years—and that's independents and lean Democrats.”

Sitting Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam won’t be seeking reelection given the state’s prohibition on consecutive terms, a rule that paved the way for former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe to run the closest thing Virginia has to an incumbency bid for governor. McAuliffe remains the clear frontrunner leading up to the Democratic Party’s June primary, although he faces challenges from state Delegates Jennifer Carroll Foy and Lee Carter, state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax.

To defeat McAuliffe, Snyder would first have to fend off a crowded field of GOP candidates at the state Republican Party’s nominating convention, which is slated to take place on May 8. Only voters who have pre-registered as delegates can vote in the convention, where they will cast their votes in a ranked-choice voting system.

The GOP race includes investment executive Glenn Youngkin, former state House speaker Kirk Cox, retired Army officer Sergio de la Peña, former president of the Center for European Policy Analysis Peter Doran, and aforementioned Republican state Sen. Amanda Chase, who has threatened to run as an independent. A self-proclaimed “Trump in heels,” Chase has continued to dominate media coverage for repeatedly calling for martial law to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election and for recently being censured by a bipartisan coalition of state senators for her “pattern of unacceptable conduct,” including calling those who stormed the Capitol on January 6 “patriots.”

Youngkin’s campaign came under fire recently when reports surfaced that his staffers were misrepresenting themselves as affiliates of the Virginia GOP during door-knocking operations. In a Ring video released March 17 and first reported by the Virginia Scope, a canvasser working for Vanguard Field Strategies—a consultant for the Youngkin campaign—tells a homeowner: “I’m working with the Republican Party in Virginia, do you plan on voting in the governor elections in June?” 

Even though the Youngkin canvasser later clarified that she was affiliated with Vanguard Field Strategies, she was subsequently recalled. “We immediately brought this video to Vanguard’s attention because it was unacceptable and did not meet the standards of our agreement or the standards of our campaign,” the Youngkin campaign said in a statement to the Virginia Scope that was later provided to The Dispatch. “We demanded and are assured that Vanguard took appropriate actions. We will continue to ensure our campaign and our vendor partners adhere to the high ethical standards that Glenn expects and Virginia Republicans deserve.”

One day after the reports surfaced, Virginia State Central Committee head and 6th District Rep. Stephen Kurtz sent a letter to Virginia GOP chair Rich Anderson demanding an investigation into the allegations. “We wanted to make sure that that was taken care of and that everybody was trained properly, and we weren’t having people from certain campaigns go out into the field and just misrepresenting who they were working for and what they were doing,” Kurtz told The Dispatch.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Republican campaign with two people with as much money with Pete Snyder and Glenn Youngkin,” he added. Youngkin, a former executive for the Carlyle Group, is worth an estimated $254 million. “I think that’s part of the issue—that we have a lot of money being spent on this convention process, which is usually not the case.”

Snyder doesn’t talk about his GOP competitors in public. When asked about recent controversy surrounding the Youngkin campaign after last Wednesday’s event, the candidate deflected: “I focus on my campaign. I don't focus on what knuckleheads are doing out there.”

Instead, Snyder likes to talk about school reopenings, what he bills as failed Democratic leadership in Richmond, and the Virginia 30 Days Fund, a nonprofit he founded to help rescue small businesses across Virginia that are struggling during the pandemic. “We felt relatively useless on the front lines of COVID, but then when we saw these horrific government mandated shutdowns of business by Ralph Northam here in Virginia—and really the devastation of what that was doing to small business owners and their families and their employees—we said, ‘Hey, wait a minute. That's a front of the war that we can offer something, and we know a thing or two about small business.’”

Snyder claims to have raised $47 million and helped save 2,700 businesses across America to date. “Someone likened me to a field surgeon in battle,” he said. “I’ve been on the battlefield patching together and doing triage on small business owners and small businesses.”

Snyder bills himself as a Trump-aligned candidate, and spoke to The Dispatch about his financial contributions to former President Trump both election cycles. “I was a delegate in 2020 and I’m the only one who who is running who actually supported him in ‘16 and ‘20,” he said. 

Even though Virginia is now widely recognized as a blue state, Snyder is convinced that his Trump alignment won’t alienate moderate Republicans, independents, or disaffected Democrats from supporting him in the race. “Not when your schools are closed, you’re paying taxes, have to hover over a computer with three kids. Absolutely not. I think people want change,” he said. “I am focused on three things. I talk about open the schools, open the economy, restoring people’s rights. Those are nonpartisan things.”