I have gone to 16 national political conventions, 11 Democratic and five Republican, from infamous Chicago in 1968 to the 2012 coronations in Tampa and Charlotte. Each had one thing in common: The party selected its nominee on the first ballot.
I have long craved a convention where someone had to wheel and deal, persuade and persist, maneuver and finagle, to win the crown. In other words, give me more than one ballot. My dream convention: the 1924 Democratic gathering in New York, which nominated John Davis on the 102nd ballot to face President Calvin Coolidge in November.
Last weekend, the Republican Party of Virginia gave me what I had long been looking for. I knew full well that Ken Cuccinelli II would be picked for governor; he was unopposed. And there was just a two-man race for attorney general. The real action, and potential for surprise, would be in the race for lieutenant governor, where there were a glorious abundance of candidates. Seven of them.
One should note that a state convention is first and foremost the ultimate congregation of the party faithful. Delegates travel from every county to be there; they don’t have to be asked or recruited. They joyfully attend because they are ideologically driven or rabidly partisan.
In this case, the one and only definitive requirement for winning their support was that you be conservative.
Each of the candidates dutifully sought to out-conservative the others. Businessman Pete Snyder had a poster that said, “Wanted: Conservative Outlaw.” Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, proclaimed that he was “Pro-life, Pro-gun, Anti-tax, and Won’t back down.” A flier from Susan Stimpson, chairman of the Stafford County Board of Supervisors, asked, “Who will stop Mike Bloomberg, Chuck Schumer and the gun grabbers?”
Even the moderate in the race, former state delegate and senator Jeannemarie Davis, had to submerge her political identity. Her literature cried out, “A Record of Protecting our Conservative Values.”
To be anything but conservative in this setting was a political death wish.
One candidate stood out right away. There was a sea of red baseball hats with yellow lettering bearing the name “Jackson” and the slogan “Let liberty light the way for Virginia.” No other candidate had hats. Hats carried the day!
E.W. Jackson was a political nobody when he ran in 2012 against George Allen for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate. Relegated as “fringe,” he finished a distant fourth. But last weekend Jackson was the story, the steak and the sizzle. He gave a stemwinder of a speech. Even country-club Republican Jay Garner of Westmoreland County, attired in seersucker with a perfectly tied bow tie, told me Jackson was the only candidate that “brought them to their feet.” He said that Jackson “can rally folks” and “tells it like it is.”
Jackson is a dazzling eclectic: an African American, a Marine Corps veteran, a Harvard Law grad and a practicing preacher from Chesapeake. He has also made life difficult for himself and his party with inflammatory rhetoric, such as this: “Planned Parenthood has been far more lethal to black lives than the KKK ever was.”
The Republican Party establishment in no way wanted Jackson on the ticket. Maybe I should amend: His running mates Cuccinelli and attorney general nominee Mark Obenshain did not want him on the ticket. But the convention delegates loved what Jackson was serving up. He led on every ballot and finally got a majority on the fourth.
There were two telling no-shows in Richmond. Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell chose to be in Wise, giving a commencement address. And Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling publicly boycotted the gathering, stating prophetically, “Chances are, we will come out of this convention with the most conservative and most ideologically driven ticket we’ve ever nominated in the history of the state.”
McDonnell four years ago attributed his success to the maxim that “elections are won in the middle.” This Republican convention went out of its way to position itself to the far right.
In the early 1970s, the Democratic Party had a faction that called itself the New Democratic Coalition. These people were to the left of George McGovern. The New Democratic Coalition was universally called NDC, for short. Many thought that this moniker really meant “November Doesn’t Count.”
If the Republican Party of Virginia is not careful and doesn’t move to the center fast, November won’t count for it either.
The writer is political analyst for WTTG-TV (Fox Channel 5).