The Bulletin

Virginia GOP meeting ends with heated outbursts as members reconsider convention

By: - January 16, 2021 3:43 pm

“I Voted” stickers spread out on a table at a polling place in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia GOP’s central committee meeting ended abruptly Saturday as members continued a heated fight over whether they should pick their statewide nominees this year through a convention or an open primary.

The committee had agreed in early December to hold a convention, but to adhere to COVID-19 protocols, a second vote was necessary to allow the event to proceed remotely with votes collected at drop off locations around the state.

And, on Saturday, that vote failed. Unlike the earlier vote, it required support from three-quarters of members in attendance, whereas only a simple majority had supported the convention.

Upon losing the vote, supporters of the convention called for an abrupt end to the meeting, which precluded consideration of a later agenda item that would have allowed the party to reverse course and instead hold a primary election that would be administered by the state.

The parliamentary maneuver led to outbursts from some members that prompted organizers to mute all participants in the electronic session, which the party streamed on its Facebook page.

“You lost,” said committee member Cole Trower before everyone in the session was silenced. “You know you don’t have the votes and you’re going home.”

Others, including Sen. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, implored members to complete the agenda. “Do not adjourn this meeting,” he said. “This is important.”

Party Chairman Rich Anderson told members that the committee would reconvene again next weekend to continue the discussion.

“My preference is for us to come back and talk until we can speak with a degree of decorum and collaborate on these issues,” he said.

The internal politics of the convention-versus-primary debate are unusual this election cycle, in part because of the pandemic and in part because of Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, who is running for governor on a hard-right platform that includes fully embracing President Donald Trump’s lies about election fraud and praising the group of people who stormed the U.S. Capitol as patriots.

In a normal year, Chase might be expected to fare better at a convention because the events are dominated by party activists, but Chase had said she would refuse to participate, claiming establishment Republicans who oppose her candidacy would rig the event against her. She has since changed course and said she’ll participate in a convention or a primary, while still favoring the latter approach.

Meanwhile, some party members have pushed for a convention as the surest way to head-off Chase’s candidacy, believing she is unlikely to win the 50 percent of the vote that would be required in a convention. Likewise, they fear Chase could win a primary election with a narrow plurality of votes in a field that could eventually rise to include five candidates.

Former House Speaker Kirk Cox, Chase’s best funded opponent, has not taken a public position on the party’s nomination method, telling committee members in a letter this week that he’ll pursue the nomination through whatever method they select.

Support for a primary contest is not limited to Chase’s supporters. For instance, some members said they just think there’s no way the party will be able to pull off a convention, traditional or remote, with the pandemic still raging.

“We cannot carry out an unassembled convention under the mandates that still exist,” argued committee member Dennis Free.

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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.