Virginia GOP set for wild, unpredictable convention
Tens of thousands of Virginia Republicans will head to community colleges, church parking lots and county fairgrounds on Saturday to choose nominees in what activists and officials say remains an unpredictable battle for the near-term future of a party that has not won a statewide election in a dozen years.
For the candidates vying for the right to run for governor under the Republican banner, the divergent options they present to voters is less about how to move on from former President Trump a year after his ignominious defeat — by a 10-point margin in Virginia, a former swing state — than it is about what package can best sell a post-Trump, pro-Trump Republican Party.
The delegates will choose among seven contenders running for the Republican nomination to replace Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who is limited to serving one term. Most strategists and activists believe the race will come down to three leading contenders: Venture capitalist Pete Snyder, a major donor who ran for lieutenant governor in 2013; Glenn Youngkin, a former chief executive of the Carlyle Group making his first run for public office; and state Sen. Amanda Chase, an archconservative who attended the Stop the Steal rally that preceded the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Some cautioned not to rule out former state House Speaker Kirk Cox, who still has a path to victory.
The race will be decided by the more than 52,000 people who have signed up as delegates to what the state party is calling an unassembled convention. While Virginia Republicans in recent years have gathered in person to choose nominees, this time the delegates will cast their ballot at 39 sites around the commonwealth in drive-thru lines.
“This is the largest political convention for a state in United States history. We are expecting rather high turnout,” said John Massoud, a town council member in Strasburg who chairs the Republican Party in Rep. Ben Cline’s (R) 6th District. “We will have dozens if not a hundred volunteers at each polling place so that people’s wait will not be too long.”
Throwing another spanner in the works is the method by which Republicans will choose their nominee: For the first time, delegates will pick a gubernatorial candidate through ranked-choice voting, rather than successive rounds of voting in which the lowest-scoring candidate is eliminated and back-room deals secure last-minute coalitions.
“I have no idea how things will go with ranked-choice voting. This will be a new experience for us,” said Mark Cole, a state delegate who sits on the board of the Virginia Republican Party.
The ranked-choice voting method at satellite convention sites represents a messy compromise after the state GOP debated between a full primary and a more traditional convention, options that divided the leading contenders in the primary field.
Tabulating ranked-choice ballots is expected to take days, and the party will not even begin counting the governor’s contest until the day after votes are cast. Votes will be weighted by county and by Republican performance, so that a single voter in a deeply conservative but sparsely populated county will have a greater say than several voters in denser but more Democratic Northern Virginia.
“There’s a bit of a Keystone Kops element to this,” said a top strategist to one of the leading contenders.
It also makes predicting the race all the more challenging. An election held on a Saturday is usually a low-turnout affair. An election in which voters could show up to face hours-long waits sitting in their cars, or turn around and head home to get their kids to soccer games and baseball practice, is even more of a threat to turnout.
“We not only preach voter suppression, we practice it,” said former Rep. Tom Davis (R).
Youngkin and Snyder, the two richest candidates in the field, have spent huge sums on what will ultimately be a tiny electorate. Youngkin recruited thousands of delegates, though their devotion to a first-time candidate is suspect. None of the candidates have formed clear alliances with rivals in hopes of winning over second- or third-place votes.
Observers expect turnout to range between 25,000 delegates and 35,000 delegates, and supporters of each candidate make the case that both a high- or low-turnout affair will be good for their team.
“Youngkin has signed up a ton of people, but I don’t know how loyal they are because once they’re in the mix [as delegates] they get bombarded for a month,” said Davis, who backs Cox. “Chase’s people are going to show, so the lower the turnout, the better she does. It’s hard to see where she picks up a lot of second ballots.”
In the hours leading up to the convention, those who have signed up to be delegates are bombarded on an almost constant basis by text messages from the leading campaigns, phone calls from supporters and a daily onslaught of mail pieces that have turned sharply negative.
Snyder has attacked Youngkin and Chase. Youngkin has blasted Snyder and Cox. Chase, the self-styled iconoclast of the group who has threatened to run as an independent if she does not win the nomination, has castigated the rest of her rivals as insufficiently committed to Trump’s legacy.
Trump has not weighed into the race himself, but he looms large over the candidates and the delegates, even in a state he lost by 10 points in 2020 and 5 points in 2016.
“Glenn Youngkin here — Critical Race Theory has no place in our schools. When I’m Governor, I will make sure our kids learn real math, not a political ideology,” says one text sent Friday morning. “Pres. Trump Press Sec. Sarah Huckabee Sanders rallied with Pete Snyder last night for the VA Gov. race! Sarah knows Pete has the backbone and fight needed to stand up to the woke mob and continue Pres. Trump’s America First Agenda in VA,” reads another sent Thursday afternoon.
The winning candidate is likely to face former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who leads polling in a field of five Democratic candidates. McAuliffe won the governorship in 2013 by just 2 percentage points over then-state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R), who went on to serve in the Trump administration and who now backs Snyder.
Some Virginia Republicans worry that their party’s devotion to Trump will cost them in a general election.
“Republicans have to move past [Trump] and make Biden the issue,” Davis said of a race in which the party that does not hold the White House traditionally does well. “This is the first manifestation, if you will, of any kind of backlash or any kind of correction.”