RICHMOND — Virginia’s outspoken attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli II, received a significant boost Friday in his battle to secure the Republican nomination for governor when the state GOP’s governing board voted to hold a convention, instead of a primary election, to pick its candidate next year.
Cuccinelli is expected to fare far better among conservative party stalwarts who will attend the convention than his rival for the nomination, Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who most likely would have been more attractive to less -conservative and moderate voters in a primary, especially in a state where primaries are open to members of either major party.
In choosing a convention, the Republican governing board actually reversed course in what is shaping up to be a contentious and expensive race.
Despite the setback, Bolling ruled out a lawsuit, even though he had previously hired high-profile elections lawyer Jan Baran to weigh his options.
“In the days to come I will aggressively move to restructure my campaign and prepare to compete in the convention process,” Bolling said in a statement. “I have run and won in conventions before and I will do so again in 2013. . . . I am confident that we can defy the political pundits and win in a party convention, just like we would have won in a statewide primary.”
The decision does not ensure victory for Cuccinelli, a tea party favorite whose causes have prompted national headlines, but many observers believe that he will win the nomination at a convention.
“We have made it clear from the beginning that we were prepared to run and win in whichever method of nomination the State Central Committee decided was best for the party,” said Noah Wall, Cuccinelli’s political director.
In Virginia, the parties choose how to nominate their candidates. A primary is open to all voters — more than 100,000 have cast ballots in recent years — while a convention is attended by a few thousand die-hard activists elected by the party at the local level for the day-long event. Republicans have alternated between primaries and conventions in recent years; Democrats have usually chosen a primary.
The committee voted 47 to 31 for the convention after two hours of debate at a meeting in which dozens of members spoke. Three members were absent.
The meeting took place the night before the state Republican convention, a gathering of more than 4,000, kicked off in Richmond. Bolling told his supporters to refrain from campaigning and that the weekend should be about the 2012 elections, when Virginia will be crucial in determining who resides in the White House and which party controls the Senate.
After lobbying by Bolling, the committee voted overwhelmingly in October to hold a primary to select nominees for all statewide races in 2013. Six candidates for Virginia’s three statewide elected positions have started raising funds and building their strategies based on the assumption that they would compete in a primary. Courts have previously not allowed a change after that has happened.
But Cuccinelli backers succeeded in winning a number of new spots on the state board over the past couple of months, prompting the issue to be reconsidered. Some of those backers — conservative party activists and supporters of presidential candidate Ron Paul, a congressman from Texas — ran on a platform of holding a convention next year.
Supporters of primaries say conventions create financial burdens for the party, which spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on them, and problems for the eventual nominee, who may need to campaign on conservative issues but later must appeal to Democrats and independents to win the general election. Conventions also prevent military voters stationed elsewhere from participating, and military groups urged a primary.
“Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling’s campaign may feel like this is a little letdown, but a good candidate can always win,” said Delores Switzer, a member from Bedford County who has endorsed Bolling.
Because Virginia has no party registration, supporters of conventions fear that Democrats and independents would cross party lines to try to defeat the stronger candidate and that the state would have to pick up the tab for a primary.
“My own personal view is I like retail politics instead of wholesale politics,” said Gary C. Byler, a longtime Republican activist from Virginia Beach and a Cuccinelli supporter. “I like the idea of a woman or man for office has to meet a voter in the eye and win them over.”
A Quinnipiac University poll released this month showed Cuccinelli leading Bolling among Republican voters, 51 percent to 15 percent. A Washington Post survey released last month found the attorney general with much stronger name recognition than Bolling.
Cuccinelli has garnered national attention for suing the federal government over health-care reform, advising colleges that they could not adopt policies protecting gay people and subpoenaing climate-change documents from the University of Virginia.
Bolling, whose role presiding over the evenly divided state Senate was elevated in importance this year, rolled out endorsements this week from U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and more than 100 grass-roots Republican leaders.
In 2009, Bolling stepped aside to allow McDonnell to run unopposed for the GOP nomination. (That year, McDonnell, Bolling and Cuccinelli were selected as nominees at a convention.) In return, McDonnell said he would support Bolling in 2013.
Democrats will decide in September what their nomination process will be.
Terry McAuliffe, a businessman and former Democratic National Committee chairman, plans a second run for governor, but he has not officially announced his intentions and says he will not do so until after the November elections.