Virginia’s Republicans could find opportunities in this year’s elections to end a dozen years in the wilderness if not for their own dysfunction.
In Richmond, a Democratic administration is trying to extricate itself from the quicksand of a Parole Board scandal in which inmates serving life terms for murder were freed without proper notice or explanation followed by efforts to keep results of investigations into the board’s actions from public view.
A newly Democratic General Assembly swiftly enacted a remarkably progressive agenda by Virginia standards that includes elimination of the death penalty. Too much too soon? The election will tell.
In Washington, Democrats newly (and narrowly) in charge of Congress and a new Democratic president will inevitably wear out their welcome as happens with all regime changes. Only once since 1973 have Virginians elected a governor of the same party as the sitting president.
Those are potentially fortuitous omens for the GOP in Virginia.
But beyond that, things get worrisome for the Republican Party of Virginia.
First, let’s rewind.
Late last year, Virginia Republicans decided to pick their nominees for the 2021 election for governor and two other top statewide offices in a closed convention rather than a primary election open to every registered Virginia voter. Historically, the party has favored conventions, which attract only the most motivated (and usually conservative) activists willing to spend the time and money to travel across the state and sit through a day of speeches.
The convention decision didn’t set well with state Sen. Amanda Chase. A firebrand Trump disciple from Chesterfield, she preferred a primary where the former president’s supporters might give her a plurality. That’s all she would need to secure the nomination in a primary compared to a party-run convention, where she would have to muster more than 50 percent of the vote.
Some in the party fear that Chase, who called the pro-Trump mob that sacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 “patriots,” would fare even worse with the state’s dominant urban/suburban electorate in November’s general election than her ideological kinsman, Corey Stewart, did in 2018 when Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine won 57 percent of the vote.
Chase, a COVID-19 skeptic and the only senator who refuses to wear a mask during sessions, sued to overturn RPV’s convention decision, arguing in court that jamming 10,000 people under one roof would be a coronavirus super-spreader. The judge dismissed her suit.
Shortly after that, RPV scrambled to find a suitable convention venue and approached Liberty University in Lynchburg about using its expansive campus parking lots for a May 8 drive-in state convention. It envisioned thousands of delegates participating remotely from cars idling on Liberty’s acres of blacktop for hours under a May sun. RPV announced the tailgate convention, and media reported it as a fait accompli. School officials, exerting a measure of independence from the GOP at a post-Falwell Liberty, said in a news release that no such agreement had been reached. RPV chairman Rich Anderson declared the plan dead in a March 5 memo to Virginia Republicans and described the party as “fatigued” by the process.
“This has begun as a rough start for me because of forces that I essentially can’t control, and that is confronting this age-old question within the party: convention vs. primary?” said Anderson, a retired Air Force colonel and eight-year House of Delegates member who was elected to the post last August.
On Friday night, when the State Central Committee finally approved a May 8 “unassembled” convention at 37 separate locations across the commonwealth, less than two months remained to winnow a field of nine gubernatorial candidates down to one.
“If Rube Goldberg had come up with a convention plan, he’d probably fit in on State Central (Committee) right now,” said Shaun Kenney, a conservative writer and former RPV executive director. “It’s the definition of an unearned goal: You’re turning around and kicking the ball into your own net.”
Kenney is like many Republicans who don’t embrace Trumpism and find themselves estranged from the party they long served. He voices weary dismay watching his party flounder.
“It’s not going to be a very transparent process and I don’t think that at the end of it people are going to be very pleased with the outcome or the method,” Kenney said.
Conventions with murky outcomes create divisions. Questions still linger over the final delegate vote count in the 2008 convention in which former Gov. Jim Gilmore barely edged then-Del. Bob Marshall for a U.S. Senate nomination, Kenney said. Hard feelings lingered, and a few months later Democrat Mark Warner won nearly two-thirds of the vote and the seat he still holds.
Last year, Republican social conservatives in the 5th Congressional District denied freshman Rep. Denver Riggleman nomination for a second term in a “drive-through” convention at a church on the home turf of self-described “biblical conservative” Bob Good in Campbell County. Good, a former Liberty fundraiser and Campbell County supervisor, won the seat in November.
“They did it that way because they knew I couldn’t be beaten on an open battlefield,” said Riggleman, a retired military intelligence officer with a libertarian streak who in 2019 officiated the same-sex wedding of two campaign staffers.
In 2011, the party decreed that its 2013 gubernatorial slate would be elected in a primary, but that was before the Tea Party consolidated its grip on the SCC in 2012 and scrapped the primary for a convention. That effectively squeezed then-two-term Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling out of any chance at succeeding Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell. Ken Cuccinelli, a social conservative and attorney general, was the nominee, but lost that fall to Democrat Terry McAuliffe, the only time in 44 years the president’s party won Virginia’s governorship.
“What I’ve learned is that these decisions always depend on what I call situational politics. There’s never been a great deal of principled consistency in the Republican Party when it comes to making these kinds of decisions,” said Bolling, who was on the last GOP ticket to win a statewide election in Virginia in 2009.
“This time it’s all about preventing Amanda Chase from becoming the nominee, which I understand because she’d be a disaster,” said Bolling, who now teaches politics and government at the University of Richmond and George Mason University. “Again, it’s about situational politics. It’s not new, it’s just with the players in different positions.”
Perhaps the bitterest GOP nomination fight was in 2019 between former Del. Chris Peace of Hanover and current Del. Scott Wyatt. In that battle, the SCC was forced to choose between a convention that Wyatt won and a firehouse primary that Peace won. The SCC chose Wyatt over the incumbent Peace, who had supported Medicaid expansion. Wyatt won the seat in a deeply conservative district.
“It’s guerilla warfare. I don’t like to use military metaphors, but I don’t know how else you’d describe it. It is hand-to-hand, it’s people hiding behind trees,” said Peace, now a lawyer in private practice.
Despite its nomination tumult and conflicts, the GOP could still have a shot in November given a nominee who can compete beyond rural Virginia in the affluent, populous suburbs. A case might be made for wealthy businessmen Glenn Youngkin or Pete Snyder. Former House Speaker Kirk Cox has an appealing bio as a 30-year public school teacher and youth baseball coach, but — as Peace learned — supporting Medicaid expansion in Virginia is a tough sell within his party.
The GOP’s saving grace, Kenney notes, may be timing.
“Nobody’s watching all this dysfunction right now,” he said. “It’s March. Nobody’s paying attention to the Republican Party’s internal fights.”