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Trump Returns to Virginia Airwaves Ahead of GOP Convention

President Trump holds up a MAGA hat at a rally
Former President Donald Trump paid a visit to the Richmond Raceway as a candidate in 2016. (Craig Carper/VPM News)

Former President Donald Trump is back on Virginia airwaves just two months after leaving office.

A new TV ad from Republican gubernatorial hopeful Glenn Youngkin features an archival clip of Trump thanking Youngkin for helping craft a trade deal with China. Another candidate, Pete Snyder, is running TV ads that echo Trump’s rhetoric: a vow to “stop liberals from rigging the system” and pledge to “take violent illegals off our streets.” Mailings sent by Snyder’s campaign feature Trump pointing into a crowd with all-caps text saying Snyder is “fighting for President Trump’s agenda.”

The two businessmen have driven the bulk of more than $2 million in GOP TV and radio ads as of March 12, according to the ad firm Medium Buying. It’s a total that veteran political analyst Bob Holsworth calls “unprecedented” ahead of a statewide nominating convention; past events have typically drawn under 15,000 voters. And Holsworth said it underscores the challenge Republicans face in Virginia, where they must first win over conservative party activists before pivoting to a general election in a state that chose Joe Biden by ten points.

“Everyone seems to be moving to the right and moving to really try to mobilize Trump supporters,” Hollsworth said. “Their challenge is that they’re taking positions on matters such as guns, such as abortion, such as LGBTQ issues that could really damage them in the suburban areas.” 

Some Republicans also question whether the money is well spent given the small audience of convention-goers. The event typically draws savvy party activists, many of whom have already made up their minds, according to GOP strategist Jimmy Keady. 

“At the end of the day, that's still a very small group that they are spending millions and millions of dollars on,” Keady said. 

Republicans like conservative blogger Matt Colt Hall have also been inundated with negative mailings, texts, and websites set up by shadowy political action committees.

“It's starting to get on everybody's nerves,” Hall said. “People bringing up old tax records, what somebody said 25 years ago -- ‘Who cheated who, who’s being true, and who don't even care anymore,’ as the old Alan Jackson song says.”

In many cases, it’s not clear who is behind the attacks.

Our First Principles Fund, a group attacking Del. Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) for his vote to expand Medicaid in Virginia, among other points, has spent at least $68,000 on TV and radio ads attacking the gubernatorial hopeful since March 8 without filing any paperwork with the Virginia Department of Elections. State code requires groups to file a “statement of organization” within ten days of spending at least $200. 

Federal Communications Commission filings list David Clemens as the group’s treasurer. Clemens did not respond to an email sent to an address listed at two federal PACs associated with his name: No Socialism PAC and AOC Hates the USA.

Clemens is also listed as the treasurer of Virginia Cornerstone PAC, a group that has accused Youngkin of being overly cozy with China, Hilary Clinton, and the Black Lives Matter organization. The tenuous claims are based on the business dealings of the investment firm the Carlyle Group, where he served as co-CEO, rather than the activities of Youngkin himself. The PAC is registered at the federal level but not with the Virginia Department of Elections.

Mailings received by Virginia voters
Mailings received by Virginia Republicans ahead of the GOP convention. Cox has defended his vote to expand Medicaid as a conservative proposal modeled after a law passed by former Vice President Mike Pence in Indiana. Snyder has said he had no hand in work his firm did for Senate Democrats in 2005 and 2006.

Republican strategist Chris Jankowski established the Cornerstone PAC, according to the Washington Post. Jankowski did not respond to an email requesting comment. 

At a candidate forum last month, Youngkin said the accusations from the group were false, noting his long track record of giving to Republican candidates and causes. He said Snyder’s campaign was behind the attacks and demanded an apology.

“If I ever hit you, you will know,” Snyder responded. 

Snyder has also been on the receiving end of attacks. Some Republicans received unattributed texts attacking Snyder for 2015 comments he made as a Fox News commentator in which he said Trump “sounds like a racist jerk.” Voters were also sent mailers from the Commonwealth Conservative Fund claiming “Sneaky Pete’s” former social media firm, New Media Strategies, received nearly $300,000 from Senate Democrats for work it did in 2006 (federal campaign filings show the company received about half that in 2005-06).

Snyder told a voter who inquired about the payments that he was “not allowed to be anywhere near” the work for the Democrats because of his conservative political leanings. And Snyder laughed off the suggestion that he was anti-Trump; the entrepreneur served as a delegate for Trump in the 2020 Republican National Convention and was the only candidate in the field to donate to Trump’s campaign both times he ran. He rattled off endorsements from Ken Cuccinelli, Trump’s former senior immigration official, and Thomas Homan, the former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

“The folks that were with Donald J. Trump from the very beginning and helped architect his policies are 100% with me,” Snyder said.

Another Trump loyalist in the race -- state Sen. Amanda Chase (R-Midlothian) -- has spent almost two years building grassroots, volunteer support that could give her an edge in the convention, according to Keady, the GOP analyst. Keady said he disagreed with “nearly everything she stands for” but argued she had a run “a very good ground operation.”

“At the end of the day, I've always been a little bullish about Amanda Chase because she's where the base is at,” Keady said. 

Chase made that case at a forum hosted by Princess Anne Republican Women on Monday. She echoed false claims of a stolen 2020 election, boasted of her participation in the Jan. 6 Stop the Steal rally that led to the riot at the U.S. Capitol, and seemed proud of her censure by the state Senate.

“I was the one that had the audacity to say the 2020 presidential election was stolen and had the audacity to express my first amendment right -- to actually go to the Capitol with President Trump on January 6, and stand and witness history,” Chase said to applause.