Hot dogs, attack ads and road rage: Virginia GOP’s unusual nomination contest enters home stretch

By: - May 3, 2021 12:02 am

Four candidates have led the GOP field in fundraising and campaign infrastructure: Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield; Del. Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights; and businessmen Pete Snyder and Glenn Youngkin. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury, Snyder campaign)

An AR-15 brandished during a virtual candidate forum. A flood of mysterious attack mailers. A candidate’s unabashed love of hot dogs.

The contest to become the Republican candidate for governor is entering its final week, and the race remains just as unusual as when it started.

Here’s are some things to keep in mind heading into Saturday’s convention.

There’s no clear front runner.

There are four obvious leaders in the seven-person field, but beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess who’s most likely to win.

“It’s the most difficult race to handicap imaginable,” said veteran political commentator Bob Holsworth, pointing to the GOP’s plan to employ ranked-choice voting and a system that weights delegates’ votes based on the partisan leanings of their home locality.

Sen. Amanda Chase represents Chesterfield in the state Senate and has embraced a hard-right, populist persona in the mold of former president Donald Trump. She has a vocal fanbase on Facebook, which took down her official campaign page after she attended the infamous Jan. 16 “Stop the Steal” rally and posted videos calling the people who stormed the Capitol patriots. (Her personal Facebook page remains active.)

Del. Kirk Cox represents Colonial Heights in the House of Delegates and served a two-year stint as House Speaker before the GOP lost its majority. The embodiment of a conservative establishment candidate, he’s emphasized his electability and suburban appeal in a year many see as the GOP’s best chance to win back ground lost during Trump’s presidency.

Pete Snyder, a businessman who unsuccessfully sought the party’s nomination for lieutenant governor in 2013, has drawn support from GOP elected officials past and present who generally fall to the right of Cox on the political spectrum, including former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who served in Trump’s administration, Del. Dave LaRock, who penned a letter to Vice President Mike Pence asking him not to certify Virginia’s election results and former state Sen. Dick Black, who is best known for twice traveling to Syria to meet with Bashar al-Assad.

Finally, Glenn Youngkin is a newcomer to Virginia politics and the former CEO of the Carlyle Group, a massive private-equity fund. Like Cox, he has emphasized his electability in the November election. He also brings the most personal wealth to the race, self-funding his campaign to the tune of $5.5 million and establishing a political action committee to fund down-ballot candidates.

Three other candidates will appear on the ballot, but they’ve struggled to raise money and have had a limited presence on the campaign trail: Sergio de la Peña, a former Army colonel and Department of Defense official under Trump; Peter Doran, a businessman and author; and Octavia Johnson, the former sheriff of Roanoke.

The race has been defined by attacks.

At forum after forum, the candidates have found themselves in agreement on most major policy issues, with proposals to tighten voting laws in Virginia drawing the most attention from both voters and candidates.

To distinguish themselves from their opponents, candidates have relied on attack mailers and negative stories about their opponents placed in conservative media outlets.

Breitbart noted earlier this month that Chase, who has campaigned as “Trump in Heels,” didn’t always have the nicest things to say about the former president she now emulates, quoting her remarks in a 2019 interview in which she suggested he was untrustworthy and narcissistic.

Snyder has also faced attacks for his past comments about Trump, who he described in a 2015 interview on Fox Business as sounding like “a racist jerk” — a remark that has come back to haunt him in articles and attack mailers. Snyder has also drawn negative coverage for a vote he took as a member of the William & Mary Board of Visitors to ban employees and visitors from carrying guns on campus.

Cox has taken the most heat for his role in expanding Medicaid coverage in Virginia, described in attack mailers as a “lead architect” of the initiative. It’s a line of attack that fueled two successful GOP primary challenges in 2019.

Younkin faced criticism in the Federalist for co-signing a letter to his employees last year urging donations to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups around the country and the Federalist derided as a “viciously anti-conservative nonprofit.”

Since the contact information of all 53,000 delegates was provided to the campaigns last week, potential voters say they’ve been inundated with texts and phone calls. “I’ve had more spammy text messages and phone calls telling me to vote for this one, or this one is a turncoat and traitor in the last week than I’ve had in the last 25 years,” wrote one frustrated delegate in an email to the Mercury.

Another delegate said he received 16 mailers on Monday of last week alone.

The Trump factor.

Regardless of their personal views on Trump, the former president represents a political dilemma for all the candidates. He remains immensely popular with the GOP base that will turn out for Saturday’s convention. But his presidency was disastrous for the party’s political fortunes in Virginia, coinciding with historic losses in the House of Delegates that lead the party to lose its majority in the chamber for the first time in more than 20 years.

Only one candidate, Chase, has publicly backed Trump’s baseless claims that the election was stolen. (Two, Snyder and Youngkin, have declined to weigh in publicly and only Cox has said Biden legitimately won the election.) But all of the candidates have said tighter election laws will be a top priority, which is widely understood as a nod to Trump’s fraud claims.

While most keep their distance, Chase used one of her last weekends on the campaign trail to travel to Florida in a long-shot effort to secure his endorsement.

Chase said in an interview this week she secured an invite to a reception at Trump’s resort, Mar-A-Lago. But she says her contact with the former president was limited to a brief encounter.

“Right after the dinner I was able to speak to President Trump and he gave me a fist bump,” Chase said. “I told him I’m Sen. Amanda Chase, running for governor. And his face lit up and he said, ‘I heard about you.’ I gave him a business card.”

Chase said she’s had follow-up conversations with Trump’s chief of staff, and while she said he has not committed to an endorsement, she’s still hopeful.

“He didn’t take anybody else’s business card,” she said.

Snyder also took steps to appeal to Trump’s base over the weekend, comparing his transition from business to politics to the former president’s in a campaign appeal. “Like Donald Trump who ran to drain the DC swamp and Make America Great Again, I’m putting my business on hold to tell Virginians that there is a solution to our problems,” he wrote.

There have been some unusual moments.

The campaign has been marked by unusual moments and tactics. The most recent came Thursday evening when one of Chase’s aides says he brandished an AR-15 pistol during a road rage incident, according to The Washington Post.

Chase was in the vehicle participating by phone in a candidate forum organized by the pro-gun Virginia Citizens Defense League. “I’ve consistently voted against disarming law-abiding citizens, especially this patchwork — O.K., we gotta go. I’m sorry, y’all,” she told the audience before she is heard saying, “No. Stop.”

A clicking sound is heard — presumably a gun being cocked — and a man in the vehicle with Chase is heard saying, “That’ll get your bitch ass in the car, won’t it?”

Chase turned the encounter into campaign fodder, sharing the Post story about the incident on her Facebook page, writing “GUNS SAVE LIVES AND IT SAVED MINE LAST NIGHT” and she’ll make no apology for being “prepared.”

While there have been an array of candidate forums organized primarily by local Republican groups for relatively small audiences, notably absent from the campaign trail was a traditional, large-scale debate between the candidates.

It’s unclear whether the four leading candidates ever appeared on stage together. Snyder, in particular, emerged as the most reticent to participate. One of the few forums he did participate in led to one of the most aggressive exchanges between the candidates after Youngkin accused Snyder of financing false attack ads against him. Snyder responded with a single line. “If I ever hit you, you will know,” he said.

Meanwhile Cox, a mild-mannered former schoolteacher, made hot dogs and kind words a mainstay of his campaign. He posted regular video reviews of local hot dog restaurants he visited as he traveled around the state. He did not appear to have a negative thing to say about any of them. He took a similar approach to his opponents last week, sending a letter to delegates offering complementary words about all his opponents in the race.

The move is part of Cox’s convention strategy of specifically asking delegates to consider him for their second choice on the ranked-choice ballots they will fill out — something he has openly embraced in a way other candidates haven’t. Under the system, if no candidate wins 50 percent of the votes outright, the lowest vote-getter’s ballots will be reallocated to a delegate’s second choice in successive rounds of counting.

It could take awhile for a winner to be declared.

That voting system means it could take a while for the GOP to figure out who the winners are — delegates are also selecting nominees for lieutenant governor and attorney general. Party leaders approved a plan last week to transport ballots from voting sites around the state to Richmond, where they will be guarded by armed security and counted in view of a livestreaming camera.

The fact that the party opted to hold a convention over a primary remains controversial. At a forum last week, Youngkin worried it limited participation and set the party up for a steeper climb in November. Only 53,000 delegates are eligible to vote compared to the 380,000 votes cast when the party chose its nominee by primary in 2017.

Convention supporters had argued that, among other things, the party-run approach will allow the GOP to require the winning candidate to secure a 50-percent majority of votes cast through successive rounds of voting.

In either case, party leaders have warned the counting could take days.

“This is a time-consuming process,” Steve Albertson, who led the party’s rules committee, told members of the State Central Committee last week. “There is no way around it. It’s going to take a lot of folks in that room, and it’s going to take up to several days.”

And depending on who the winner is, the fight for GOP votes could potentially continue into November. Chase continues to accuse Snyder of unfairly influencing the convention by hiring party officials to work on his campaign and says she’ll run as an independent in the general election if he wins.

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.