(The first column of 2021) Today’s unassembled Virginia GOP convention could prove a disaster

By David S. Kerr

If the Virginia Republican Party was having a primary to choose its nominee for Governor, something it demurred from this year, there would be polls as well as a much more public presence for the GOP nominees as they seek the nomination.  That would make it a lot easier to make assumptions and forecasts about a front runner.  But, in this year’s selection process, you can forget about all that.

This year, in selected the GOP nominee for Governor, the Republicans are having an “unassembled convention” Saturday (a what?), just a few days from now, which is easily one of the most convoluted, confusing and downright bizarre selection processes imaginable.   It could be a first in American history and makes me long for the smoke-filled rooms of days gone by.

There are several candidates – more on that in a moment – and lots of campaigning.  However, because it’s all focused on the limited number of people allowed to vote May 8, as far as the rest of Virginia is concerned it might as well be occurring in secret.

Here is a quick outline of the process – and if you get a headache trying to sort it out – you’re not alone.  Republicans will allow anyone who has filed to be a delegate to participate.  There was no cap on the number of delegates, and 53,000 signed up.  All they had to do was file the appropriate paperwork with their county chair and pledge to support the party’s nominee in the fall.  

On Saturday, they will vote at 37 different locations across Virginia, all drive-in, for the candidate of their choice.  However, to keep population and past GOP performance in their region in the equation, their relative voting strength will be adjusted by locality.  Fairfax votes will have a different weight then Henrico’s.  That sort of thing.

That’s confusing enough.  However, it gets even more interesting. Delegates will make a first choice, a second choice, a third choice, and so on for each statewide office (governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general as well).  The nominee could be determined not by one vote, but after a gradual elimination process in which the second-choice votes are allocated until a nominee reaches 50%.  No one knows quite how it’s going to work.  It may be days before a nominee is chosen, and even then, you can expect some legal challenges

A redo is even possible.

Yes, my head hurts now.  But this approach was made after the party decided that a COVID-era convention, originally planned at Liberty University, wasn’t necessarily safe.  So, we have this unusual hybrid selection process.  The decision as to whether to have a convention or a primary (as the Democrats are having in June) was hard-fought by party leaders. 

So, who are the candidates?  Seven people are running for the Republican nomination for governor.  However, three of them aren’t likely to get much traction.  The real contenders are state Sen. Amanda Chase, former House of Delegates Speaker Kirk Cox and businessmen Pete Snyder and Glen Youngkin.  Any surprise come-from-behind wins from the other three are unlikely.

Chase, the first choice as far as the Democrats are concerned, is one of the most controversial figures in Richmond.  She calls herself “Trump in heels” and lives up to the reputation.  She is pro-Second Amendment and then some, rides all the far-right issues with enthusiasm and even advocated that President Trump declare martial law to allow a “redo” of the states he lost in 2020. 

Now, lest this seem like she is too far out there to be a political force, think again.  She has a loyal and motivated following.  She could easily get more first choices than many expect and could be a lot of delegates’ second choice.

Two other strong Trump supporters, neither of whom have held public office, are Pete Snyder and Glenn Youngkin.  Both are prosperous businessmen, both have a strong fealty to Donald Trump, and both are putting a lot of money into this unusual form of campaigning.    

At the moment it looks as though the Trump wing – maybe the only wing of the Virginia GOP with any power at the moment – is where the choice for the nominee is going to come from.

The only candidate that qualifies as an establishment Republican – a phrase that’s pejorative in some GOP quarters – is former Speaker of the House Kirk Cox.  He is conservative, yes, though he did support Medicaid expansion in Virginia as a part of the Affordable Care Act and is arguably the least associated with the Trump wing of the party.  He has a strong backing from members of the House of Delegates and two former governors.  Thing is, does that help in today’s Virginia GOP?  Maybe yes, but probably not.  This isn’t the same Virginia Republican Party we knew just five years ago.  That’s why making a call on which way the nomination is going to go, is anyone’s guess.  Because, with such a complicated voting system, 53,000 voters, weighted votes, and ranked voting, polls and prognostications are completely useless.  All I can say to the candidates, is have lots of poll watchers, bring your slide rules, and make sure you have your lawyers on speed dial. 

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