Virginia Republicans stick with convention as messy fight over nomination method continues

By: - January 24, 2021 8:46 am

Virginia’s state flag flies in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

Virginia Republicans appear to be sticking with their plans to hold a convention to select their nominees for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.

The decision has not come easily. The party’s central committee has been divided for weeks, leading to procedural deadlock, convoluted parliamentary maneuvers and increasingly heated debate that on Saturday left members exasperated.

“We have had cursing on this call; the last meeting devolved into people yelling,” said Willie Deutsch, a committee member representing the state’s 1st Congressional District. “There comes a time when we have to come together as a party and stop the vicious incivility and attacks.”

The central committee, which governs the operations of the state party and includes 80 members from around the state, had already decided to hold a convention at a meeting in December.

But the simple majority that won the convention vote didn’t have the 75-percent vote threshold required to change the party’s plan to allow a remote event in which ballots would be collected at polling sites around the state — a step all agree is necessary given the pandemic.

That led supporters of a state-run primary to unsuccessfully push the committee to switch nomination methods over the course of two subsequent meetings, which dragged on for hours and included near constant procedural challenges.

On Saturday, the primary supporters lost a key vote for the third meeting in a row, appearing to settle the question even as the committee remains deadlocked on new rules allowing for a remote event.

“I have been directed by a majority of this state central committee to plan for a convention, so I will do that,” Party Chairman Rich Anderson said.

The interests within the two factions are varied.

Sen. Amanda Chase, who’s running a hard-right campaign for governor, threatened to enter the race as an independent unless the party held an open primary, alleging GOP insiders would rig a convention against her. She has since said she’ll run as a Republican regardless of the nomination, but continued to ask her supporters to lobby the state central committee for a primary.

On the flip side, some of Chase’s opponents on the committee pushing for a convention view it as the best way to ensure she loses the nomination to a more mainstream candidate they hope will help the party win back ground in the state’s densely populated suburbs. They argue a divisive candidate like Chase could win a crowded field with just a plurality of the vote in a primary, where in a convention a candidate would need at least 50 percent of the vote to win. (Chase’s only formally declared opponent, former House Speaker Kirk Cox, has taken no public position on the matter.)

But the pro-primary camp also includes people who don’t support Chase’s candidacy. Sen. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, relayed that nearly all members of the Republican caucus in the House and Senate support a primary. Chase is well known for quitting the Senate Republican caucus last year, and members of the caucus have frequently criticized Chase on the Senate floor. Republican Senators joined with Democrats to strip Chase, who praised the mob that stormed the Capitol as “patriots,” of her last committee assignment last week.

Primary supporters cited logistical concerns — namely the complexity and uncertainty of organizing any kind of convention during the pandemic. They worried that under the governor’s existing executive orders, which ban gatherings of 10 or more people, even drive-through voting might be prohibited.

Longstanding arguments in favor of a primary also surfaced, namely that it would allow more people to participate and introduce the party’s candidates to more voters ahead of a General Election that could very well pit a relatively-unknown Republican against a Democratic candidate who is already a household name, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

“Building the party going forward — we talk about voter registration, reaching out to voters and everything,” said committee member Nancy Dye. “A primary is going to give us voter data to work with and that’s going to be so important as we approach November.”

On the convention side, supporters argued that the question had been settled during the initial vote in December. They accused primary supporters of holding the committee hostage by refusing to change rules to allow for a COVID-friendly unassembled convention.

“We should really be focused on our enemy, and that enemy is the Democratic Party,” said Vincent Xavier, noting that in recent years the party has held both conventions and primaries and candidates selected by both methods have lost. “This is really just a matter of the side that lost the debate accepting it and moving forward. It is a bogus theory that the primary is going to generate lots of interest and that’s going to win. By having this infighting, we are making the party weak.”

Distrust and fear also occasionally figured into the debate. One committee member in favor of conventions noted polls showing most Republicans no longer have faith in government-run fair elections, questioning why the party would willingly involve the state with its nomination contest. A member who supported primaries worried convention sites could be subject to antifa attacks.

The meeting, held on Zoom and broadcast on Facebook, at one point devolved into name calling. As National Committeewoman Patti Lyman laid out her argument for a convention, an unidentified member of the committee interrupted to call her a “witch,” prompting a mild rebuke from Anderson.

“That is not acceptable,” Anderson said. “I would ask all individuals to please mute yourself so your inadvertent comments are not broadcast. It’s very distracting.”

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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.