By Mark J. Rozell
The Republican Party of Virginia has a chance this year to reestablish itself as a competitive force in statewide elections.
After a dozen years without a statewide victory, the GOP leadership needed to take a careful look within to understand why voters have turned their backs on the once dominant political party in Virginia. It appears that party leaders decided that with the right method of nominating candidates for statewide office, they can change their fortunes.
Republican Party leaders generally have favored conventions as a means of selecting nominees for statewide offices. The closed process, open only to the most inside of GOP insiders and dominated by some of its most conservative voices, has had a mixed record of success.
In 2009, the GOP nominating convention yielded the last successful statewide ticket – a triumvirate led by Bob McDonnell that swept all three statewide offices – governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. Since then, however, it has failed to produce a single successful statewide winner for either state or federal offices.
In 2013, it blessed a ticket with Ken Cuccinelli at the top and firebrand pastor E.W. Jackson as his lieutenant governor – a combination that an increasingly moderate Virginia electorate rejected. The 2017 GOP ticket similar ran far right – and got clobbered again.
Might the GOP’s fortunes change this year?
Party leaders have gambled on a creative process for nominating candidates for statewide offices. They opted for the rarely used ranked selection method in which delegates choose their first, second, and third choices at one time on one ballot rather than winnowing the field through time-consuming, ballots cast one after another for just one candidate.
In brief, should no candidate receive a majority of first choice ballots, the second choices of the candidate who polled in last place then get counted. This continues until one person passes a majority.
The RPV has used what’s called Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) only once before – and that was for selecting a state party leader, not elected officeholders. Nationally, advocates for ranked-choice voting have tended to come from the liberal-progressive side of the political spectrum.
So why did the RPV choose RCV this time?
It is no secret that the party leadership sought to guide the GOP away from choosing state Sen. Amanda Chase, a confrontational Trump disciple, for governor and toward a candidate who is more palatable to Virginia’s suburban swing voters.
Chase evidently believes the party chose the RCV process to freeze her out of the nomination. She sued – unsuccessfully – to halt the party from using RCV in a multi-location convention. She knew that she likely benefits most if the party instead held an open primary in which the candidate with a mere plurality wins the nomination. Chase knew that with a multi-candidate field – there are seven GOP gubernatorial candidates – she could emerge from a primary with more votes than any of the others. RPV’s leadership knew it too.
For all of the talk now about the GOP still being under the spell of Donald Trump, unable to extricate itself from the failed ex-president and all the political baggage he carries in increasingly blue Virginia, the decision to use RCV signals perhaps an emerging realization by party leaders that it is time to look to the GOP’s future.
The Trump era ushered in a series of electoral disasters for the GOP, which took a drubbing in the 2017 and 2019 cycles, and now sees the consequences – once unthinkable liberal-progressive policies dominating the Virginia landscape.
Indeed, if history is a reliable guide for 2021, Republicans should have a good election year, as the party out of the White House usually surges in Virginia the year after the presidential election.
The GOP stands a real chance if it can make this year’s elections a referendum on the leftward policy lurch both in Richmond and in Washington. But that can only happen with a mainstream nominee who can appeal to moderate swing voters.
Mark J. Rozell is the dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University where he holds the Ruth D. and John T. Hazel Chair in Public Policy. He is co-author of The South and the Transformation of US Politics and the forthcoming African American Statewide Candidates in the New South (both books with Oxford University Press).