In 2013, the Virginia state Republican Party in its infinite wisdom decided to hold a convention, not a primary, to choose its statewide ticket. Predictably, a small group of hard-core Republicans handpicked two far-right candidates, Ken Cuccinelli and E.W. Jackson. Both lost, and Jackson’s incendiary rhetoric caused the party no small amount of grief. The takeaway by many in the state party was that if the party is to be competitive in a purple-leaning state, it needs to get out of the insular party confines of a convention and stage primaries where candidates with wider appeal can compete and bring in new voters.
But now, with the Virginia Republican Party central committee set to meet tomorrow, an effort is underway to keep the selection within the good-old-boy convention. Ironically, that effort comes from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who repeatedly presents himself as a man determined to open up the party and appeal to non-traditional voters. Republican insiders say there is a full-court press by his supporters, trying to pressure the 84-person central committee that will decide the issue. Whether the attempt by one candidate to rig the system in his favor is successful remains to be seen.
In an e-mail trying to drum up support for a convention entitled “Convention push by team Rand” and obtained by Right Turn, Paul aide Chris LaCivita implored a voting member of the central committee to stick with a convention, arguing, “I think a convention this particular time would actually been a tremendous boom for the state GOP not from a fundraising standpoint — but from an organizational and PR standpoint.” Really, a return to the stuffy confines of the remarkably non-diverse convention setting would be a PR boon? He concedes, “I’m a huge primary guy as you know — but conventions are important — especially this year, when we desperately need an injection of grassroots enthusiasm . . . . As you know, it’s a totally different exercise organizing for a convention than a primary — and a primary while yes, it allows more folks to vote, I believe will do nothing for where our state party needs the most help — organization!”
This is curious on multiple levels. First, with less voter participation, the party organization suffers. A primary, after all, is a test run in organizing and outreach. This is especially true in Virginia, where there is no registration by party. With no primary, a party loses the opportunity to learn party affiliation and deprives the nominee of data that would be essential in a general-election operation. Tucker Martin, longtime Republican adviser and veteran of many statewide races, tells me that Republicans “need to come at this issue from the perspective of how do we get the most Virginians interested in, and involved with, Republican politics.” He explains, “People are busy, the Commonwealth is big. A primary makes Virginia matter in the nominating process, and it makes it possible for the very voters we need moving forward to be part of that process.”
As for the PR, a GOP party insider reminds me that charging a delegate fee for convention participation has already drawn the criticism of the American Civil Liberties Union, which is calling it a poll tax, giving the Democrats a general-election issue about disenfranchisement. Paul, in essence, is helping opponents paint the GOP as anti-minority. (He has previously implored the party not to emphasize voter ID laws because of the impression it creates that the party is trying to exclude minorities.) And finally, Paul’s Virginia effort, along with ones in other states, including Nevada, to keep away from primaries is effectively an admission that he needs the smallest possible voting audience with the highest possible level of commitment to win. As Martin puts it, “It’s no secret our Party has been struggling. We have got to be looking for every opportunity by which to bring more people in and broaden participation.”
Paul’s hypocrisy here is stunning. For a couple of years now, Paul has been saying things like, “I’m working very hard to make sure our party’s bigger and more inclusive” and going to traditionally black colleges to show how much he wants voters who would never before have contemplated voting Republican. He also has been arguing, “We have to have a bigger party, a more inclusive party, and when we do we’re going to be the dominant party again, but if we do the same thing we’ve always done, and say hey, we’re going after the same people, we’re going to get the same result and that’s not been good for us in presidential elections.” So much for all that. Instead, because he lacks wider appeal, he’s making efforts to cut the GOP selection system off from non-traditional voters. Turning Virginia’s primary process into an affair for party insiders is precisely the wrong way to bring in minorities and independents.
If Virginia Republicans fall for this, forgetting the lesson of 2013, they have no one to blame but themselves. And if the GOP wants a candidate who can attract new, diverse voters, it should move away from closed-door conventions and sparsely attended caucuses. A candidate truly interested in expanding the party’s appeal — instead of furthering his own political aims at the expense of the party — would understand that.
LaCivita did not respond to a request for comment.
UPDATE: LaCivita denied that a convention would exclude minorities or limit the party’s appeal, pointing out that Jackson is African American. But 5,000 delegates who can travel to one convention location, overwhelmingly white and already active Republicans, are by definition less diverse than the commonwealth as a whole. He insisted, “There are three levels of participation available and open to everyone who agree with the Party’s principals if in fact a convention were held.” But of course the party is trying to reach new voters, not old-time Republicans, and there is no substitute, according to GOP candidates, for developing a data bank of hundreds of thousands of voters that would be created only in a primary. He did not offer an opinion as to whether this directly contradicts Rand Paul’s minority outreach.
The bottom line: A convention is in Paul’s interest but not in the interest of diversifying the GOP or enlarging its base.