State GOP opts to stage primary vote
Decision on 2016 contest gives moderates in the party a rare victory
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.”