Virginia Republicans hoping to break a 12-year losing streak in statewide elections face an additional self-imposed obstacle this year: They still have no idea how they'll choose their nominees.
Plans right now call for a statewide convention May 1 to choose nominees for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. The problem, though, is that mass gatherings are still banned because of the coronavirus pandemic. And party leaders can't agree on how to adjust.
The confusion is such that Amanda Chase, a Donald Trump acolyte who has been the bane of the state's GOP establishment, sued the Republican Party of Virginia over its inaction.
In an interview, Chase compared the situation to "a game of Monopoly and you just want to know what the rules are.”
Chase has long advocated a primary election to choose a nominee, fearing that the establishment can rig convention rules to her disadvantage. She's worried that the party bosses will throw up their hands and simply choose a nominee themselves, without any input from voters, either through a convention or a primary.
“The people of Virginia need to realize what’s going on here so they voice their frustration and concern.” she said.
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A lawyer for the state GOP responded in court papers that Chase is suing to gain a political advantage by blocking a nomination method that doesn't work in her favor.
Still, party chairman Richard Anderson himself raised the possibility that the party's State Central Committee will have to step in. He laid out the dilemma in stark terms in a Jan. 25 letter to party leaders.
“(W)e are now on a trajectory that will preclude an assembled convention, an unassembled convention, and a primary. That will require that our three statewide nominees be selected by the SCC, which will take on the perception of party bosses huddled in a smoke-filled back room,” Anderson wrote.
Anderson said he'd like to start making plans for an “unassembled” convention, possibly with multiple locations, drive-thru voting, or some combination of tweaks and revisions that would allow Republican voters to participate. A majority of the party's rulemaking committee agrees, but not the 75 percent supermajority needed under party rules to approve such changes.
A group of more than 30 committee members who have advocated for a primary instead of a convention sent out a letter Friday pushing for a canvass or firehouse primary instead of a convention as a compromise. Unlike a true primary, a firehouse primary could be run by the party under its own rules, with far fewer polling places.
It could also employ ranked choice voting that would mimic how voting is done at a convention, where underperforming candidates are eliminated at each stage and a new ballot is conducted until one candidate achieves an outright majority.
But it’s not at all clear that this proposal could get the necessary support from the committee, either.
The details of how the nomination process will work are of critical importance to the candidates, particularly in a gubernatorial race that has multiple well-funded candidates who currently appear unlikely to win a majority vote on a first ballot.
“(W)e now stand at an impasse with no apparent way forward,” Anderson wrote in his Jan. 26 letter. "From my perspective, the clock is ticking."
In an interview Friday, RPV spokesman John March said no significant progress has been made in the weeks since Anderson wrote his letter, but he downplayed the possibility that party bosses will choose a nominee.
“I've not seen anyone who wants that option,” he said.
Republican gubernatorial candidates, meanwhile, are eager to see the rules put in place so they can tailor their campaigns to whatever the nomination process will be.
“The State Central Committee will take care of its business, hopefully sooner rather than later, but that isn’t stopping us from doing everything it will take to win no matter the nomination,” Del. Kirk Cox said in an emailed statement.
Another candidate, former Carlyle Group CEO Glenn Youngkin, expressed frustration with the party central committee in a Friday interview with Lynchburg radio station WLNI.
“I am so happy to run for governor no matter what state central decides. But this idea that we’re not going to decide is just unacceptable,” Youngkin said.
Republicans in Virginia have long been leery of picking nominees via primary. Voters in Virginia don’t register by party, so any registered voter can participate, and Republicans worry that Democrats would cast ballots for weaker candidates who would then be defeated in a general election.
Ideologically, some conservatives also have preferred conventions, on the theory that those motivated to attend will be more likely to choose a strong conservative over a moderate.
Democrats, meanwhile, are set for a June primary to pick a nominee to succeed Gov. Ralph Northam. Virginia governors are barred from serving consecutive terms.
Virginia and New Jersey are the only two states in the U.S. with gubernatorial races this year, and only Virginia has an open seat. The off-year elections are watched closely by both parties to see which might have an advantage heading into national midterm elections.
Republicans last won a governor's race in Virginia in 2009, but they often fare better in the year after Democrats win the White House. A recent exception was in 2013, when Democrat Terry McAuliffe beat Ken Cuccinelli. McAuliffe is running for governor again this year.
Rankin reported from Richmond.