Politics & Policy

Virginia’s Primary Problem

(Stephen Coburn/Dreamstime)
Could Old Dominion Republicans really have a presidential nominating convention?

For the second straight election cycle, Republicans in Virginia may face a limited choice when picking their party’s candidate for president. After a much-derided 2012 primary that offered voters a ballot with only two candidates to choose from, the state GOP is now contemplating scrapping the primary system entirely in favor of a nominating convention.

This may be the biggest decision the cash-strapped Virginia Republican Party has made in recent memory, with the GOP’s chances of carrying the state in 2016 potentially hanging in the balance. A convention would insulate the party from any mischief-making by Democrats, create an important fundraising opportunity, and likely give the nod to a candidate favored by well-organized grassroots activists. But it would also mean that just 10,000 to 20,000 of those activists got to choose the nominee — leaving hundreds of thousands of Republicans in the state out of the process.

Virginia GOP Chairman John Whitbeck is quick to emphasize that nothing has been decided yet, and that no final decision is expected until autumn. He says that contrary to coverage suggesting that the state GOP is deciding between a primary and a nominating convention, they are actually considering four options: a mass meeting, a party canvas, a convention, or a state-run primary. A mass meeting is roughly analogous to a caucus, where participants must attend local meetings and cast votes at the end. A party canvas is like a primary, but it isn’t run by the state, and it often uses fewer polling places, sometimes just one site per county.

The Old Dominion GOP has used both primaries and conventions to choose its nominees in the past. Virginia Republicans selected their statewide candidates through conventions in 2001, 2009, 2013 and 2014, and through primaries in 2002, 2005 and 2006. In 2008, Virginia Republicans voted for their presidential nominee through a primary (John McCain won) and their senatorial nominee (former governor Jim Gilmore) through a state party convention.

The state GOP has to decide and notify the Republican National Committee by October 1 of this year. The nominating process that the state party ultimately settles on must take place between March 1 and June 3 of next year.

“You look at the election in front of you, and you see what the best option is,” Whitbeck sys. “We want to hear the arguments on both sides for each option, and we should select the process that gives us the best chance of winning Virginia in the general election.”

Whitbeck, who chairs the 83-member Virginia Republican State Central Committee which will ultimately decide the matter, tells National Review that at this point he is undecided. In the past he has made comments criticizing state-run primaries for their cost to taxpayers and vulnerability to Democrat-leaning voters. (Virginia does not register voters by party.)

He says that while the exact cost of holding a state-run primary depends upon how many candidates qualify, how many ballots will be printed, and how many precincts will be open, the total would surely be in the “millions” of dollars. The cost to potential candidates is considerably higher in primaries as well. Back in 2008, GOP strategists estimated that it costs candidates about $4 million to compete in a primary, compared with about $1 million to compete at a convention.

Money is a big reason the state central committee might find the convention option attractive. The ability to raise money through a convention has to be tempting for a state party so desperately strapped for cash: The Virginia GOP’s January 31 filing with the Federal Elections Commission indicated that it had $252 in cash on hand. (Yes, you read that right.)

While the state party cannot charge participants to vote, it can raise money through requests for donations, and through guest fees and other charges. In 2013, when statewide Republican nominees were chosen at a convention, candidates were charged $10,000 for “preferred sign placements.” Lieutenant gubernatorial candidate Steve Martin later complained about that arrangement, whereby “the payer gets in to the Coliseum on Thursday to put up signs and the non-payer cannot get in until Friday morning.

On the other hand, a convention would likely feature the lowest turnout of the four options. At the 2013 convention, fewer than 12,000 Republicans selected the GOP nominees for governor, lieutenant governor, and state attorney general. In 2014, a mere 2,686 state-party convention attendees nominated Ed Gillespie by acclimation to be the party’s senatorial candidate.

“If we have a convention, we’ll have to find the biggest arena in the state,” Whitbeck says. “It would probably be the biggest convention in the history of the state.” (John Paul Jones Arena on the University of Virginia’s campus in Charlottesville is the state’s largest arena, with a record capacity of 15,219.)

Whitbeck cites past experience to argue that a state-run primary isn’t the only option that can prompt and accommodate high turnout. Before he became state party chair, he ran the GOP in the state’s 10th District, in the suburbs west of Washington, D.C. In 2014, Republicans in that district used a party canvas to select their congressional candidate. GOP staffers ran ten polling places that were open for five hours, and 13,609 voters cast ballots, choosing from among six candidates. (Barbara Comstock won the primary and ultimately won the seat in November.)

Whitbeck points out that in 2013, Democrats held a state-run primary for lieutenant governor and state attorney general. In the 10th District, nearly 200 precincts were open all day . . . and only 10,860 people voted.

But some Republicans fear that the non-primary options could sap the energy and enthusiasm of party members in the state, at precisely the time when the GOP nominee most needs a motivated base.

“Let’s be honest here, Virginia Republicans could use a shot of energy,” says Tucker Martin, onetime communications director for former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell. “[Narrowly-defeated Senate candidate] Ed Gillespie gave us a huge one last fall, and I think a competitive statewide presidential primary in 2016 could do it again#…#I’m not saying either format guarantees an ‘optimal’ outcome for any side. What a primary could do though is engage casual conservative voters who would then be far more likely to participate come this fall, and more likely to become involved long term in the party.”

The back-and-forth debate comes after a 2012 Virginia presidential primary that frustrated almost everyone involved. That cycle, the requirements to appear on the Republican presidential primary ballot were steep, but not onerous: a candidate needed 10,000 signatures — including at least 400 from each of the state’s eleven congressional districts — by December 22, 2011.

Only Mitt Romney and Ron Paul met the ballot requirements. Though the state party arguably set the bar too high in an effort to weed out gadflies, a decent amount of blame must undoubtedly be placed with the campaigns of candidates like Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Jon Huntsman, and Michele Bachmann for failing a basic organizational test.

Romney won the primary, with 158,119 votes to Paul’s 107,451. The candidates who couldn’t clear the qualifying signature threshold later filed a lawsuit, which was thrown out by U.S. District Judge John Gibney.

“No one can seriously argue that the rule is unduly burdensome,” Gibney wrote in his decision. “In essence, they played the game, lost, and then complained that the rules were unfair.”

The decision the Virginia GOP makes in the coming months could determine whether yet another crop of Republican presidential hopefuls, or the bulk of the state’s primary voters, are the ones crying foul when the dust settles this time around.

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