State GOP opts to stage pri­mary vote

De­ci­sion on 2016 con­test gives mod­er­ates in the party a rare vic­tory

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - BY JENNA PORTNOY jenna.portnoy@wash­

staunton, va. — Vir­ginia’s Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nat­ing con­test next year will be a pri­mary open to all vot­ers in­stead of a party-run con­ven­tion, GOP lead­ers de­cided Satur­day by a slim mar­gin.

The de­ci­sion de­liv­ered a blow to a coali­tion of tea party-in­flu­enced ac­tivists called the Con­ser­va­tive Fel­low­ship. Many have blamed that group for push­ing the party to the right, cost­ing Repub­li­cans statewide of­fices and oust­ing for­mer U.S. House ma­jor­ity leader Eric Can­tor.

A num­ber of its stal­wart mem­bers broke with the fel­low­ship for the first time and joined mod­er­ate es­tab­lish­ment Repub­li­cans who think a pri­mary is the best way to grow the party and who worry that the state party couldn’t pull off a high-stakes con­ven­tion.

Un­til now, mem­bers of the fel­low­ship had been uni­fied in their com­mit­ment to con­ven­tions. Yet mod­er­ates per­suaded some of them to vote for a 2016 pres­i­den­tial pri­mary in ex­change for a rec­om­men­da­tion for a con­ven­tion in 2017, when the party will choose nom­i­nees for gover­nor and other statewide of­fices.

Mem­bers of the Repub­li­can State Cen­tral Com­mit­tee voted 42 to 39 for the com­pro­mise af­ter a nearly five-hour meet­ing at the Stonewall Jack­son Ho­tel and Con­fer­ence Cen­ter here in the Shenan­doah Val­ley.

John Whit­beck, state GOP chair­man, said bit­ter party bat­tles in re­cent years have dis­tracted Vir­ginia Repub­li­cans, giv­ing their Demo­cratic coun­ter­parts an or­ga­niz­ing edge.

“While we’ve been fight­ing the last cou­ple years, Democrats have been reg­is­ter­ing tens of thou­sands of vot­ers. They’ve been hold­ing meet­ing af­ter meet­ing while we’ve been fight­ing amongst our­selves,” he said. “Ev­ery­thing we do should be about win­ning. Win­ning is all that mat­ters. . . . We have not won a statewide race in a long time.”

Pro­po­nents of each ap­proach said their side had the best for­mula for en­gag­ing ac­tivists and re­build­ing the base — key goals for a party that has been shut out of all five statewide of­fices and has strug­gled to raise money since Can­tor’s loss to Dave Brat in a pri­mary last sum­mer.

Con­ven­tions are day-long events that tend to at­tract only the most com­mit­ted — and con­ser­va­tive — ac­tivists, while a state-run pri­mary is held in polling places across the com­mon­wealth and open to all vot­ers.

Pri­mary en­thu­si­asts say their ap­proach is the only way to gen­er­ate a list of Repub­li­can loy­al­ists — data cru­cial to fu­ture get-out-the-vote and fundrais­ing ef­forts — in Vir­ginia be­cause the state does not have party reg­is­tra­tion. Nearly 500,000 vot­ers cast bal­lots in the 2008 Repub­li­can pri­mary. Those who fa­vor a con­ven­tion say at most 15,000 vot­ers would be likely to at­tend.

Wen­dell Walker, of Lynch­burg, the party’s 6th Con­gres­sional Dis­trict chair­man, has fa­vored con­ven­tions in the past, but he said the party’s dis­mal show­ing in re­cent years con­vinced him that a pri­mary is best.

“The eyes of the na­tion are go­ing to be watch­ing what Vir­ginia does,” he said dur­ing a break in the meet­ing. “The con­ven­tion for the past two years has not pro­duced a win­ner be­cause not enough of them par­tic­i­pate. I think we need to un­der­stand the po­lit­i­cal re­al­ity of what we have been see­ing for years.”

Pro­po­nents of hold­ing a con­ven­tion said it would have ex­cited Repub­li­cans se­ri­ous about build­ing the base of the party and in­jected much-needed cash into the party’s cof­fers.

De­tails would have been worked out over the sum­mer, but early pro­pos­als said a $35 del­e­gate fee, can­di­date fil­ing fees as high as $25,000 and spon­sor­ships could have gen­er­ated up to $700,000. The event could have been held at the John Paul Jones Arena in Char­lottesville, the home of Univer­sity of Vir­ginia bas­ket­ball and the largest in­door venue in the state, with a ca­pac­ity of about 14,500.

“I think this is a re­ally ex­cit­ing op­por­tu­nity to su­per­charge our base . . . and raise some much­needed funds,” said Steve Al­bert­son, chair­man of the Stafford County GOP, a con­ven­tion pro­po­nent. “How­ever the vote turns out, we are still on the same team. We need to learn to not take this so per­son­ally.”

Those who fa­vor a pri­mary say their op­po­nents un­der­es­ti­mated the cost of hold­ing a mas­sive con­ven­tion and noted that the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union of Vir­ginia has al­ready warned the party against charg­ing fees that could be in­ter­preted as poll taxes.

In 2012, an early it­er­a­tion of the fel­low­ship, led by gu­ber­na­to­rial con­tender Ken Cuc­cinelli II, seized con­trol of the State Cen­tral Com­mit­tee and de­ter­mined the party would hold a con­ven­tion.

Many in the es­tab­lish­ment wing of the party blamed that process for nom­i­nat­ing can­di­dates whom Democrats suc­cess­fully painted as too con­ser­va­tive for Vir­ginia’s chang­ing elec­torate.

The takeover also pushed then lieu­tenant gover­nor Bill Bolling out of the nom­i­nat­ing process for gover­nor en­tirely. Since then, he’s be­come an in­creas­ingly out­spo­ken ad­vo­cate for open-to-all pri­maries.

“Un­for­tu­nately, there are some that are seem­ingly afraid of let­ting the peo­ple de­cide who the nom­i­nees of our party are,” Bolling said in a state­ment Thurs­day. “They would rather have a bunch of mono­lithic thinkers sit­ting around in an echo cham­ber talk­ing to each other, than en­gage in an open de­bate that gives more main­stream vot­ers a voice.”

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