The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Judge tosses suit brought by Republican contender for Virginia governor

A lawsuit brought by Sen. Amanda F. Chase (R-Chesterfield) against the Virginia Republican Party, challenging its move to hold a convention instead of a primary, has been dismissed. (Ryan M. Kelly/AP)

RICHMOND — A Richmond judge on Friday dismissed a lawsuit brought by a Republican contender for governor who argued the Virginia GOP's plan to pick its gubernatorial nominee at a convention would run afoul of coronavirus restrictions.

State Sen. Amanda F. Chase (Chesterfield) asserted in her suit that a traditional convention — a day-long gathering of about 10,000 delegates — would be illegal under Virginia’s current pandemic rules that limit groups to 10 people.

After an hour-long hearing, retired Circuit Court Judge Margaret P. Spencer ruled from the bench that Chase lacked standing to sue. Spencer also found the case “envisions future facts” related to virus restrictions and the convention’s format that might not be true when the event takes place May 1.

Va. Republicans pick convention over primary to navigate Trumpism in 2021 governor’s race

It was unclear whether Chase, who did not attend the hearing because the Senate was in session, would appeal. Her attorney, Tim Anderson, said he would have to consult with her.

Chris Marston, the party’s legal counsel, said the decision eliminates any chance that the GOP will abandon the convention plan and opt instead for a state-run primary. The deadline for requesting a primary is Tuesday. The State Central Committee, the party’s governing board, will not meet before then, Marston said, despite a petition brought by 31 members calling for a meeting Saturday.

The decision still leaves many unknowns about how the party will pick its nominee, since it will be up to the deeply fractured committee to come up with a format that meets whatever virus restrictions are in place in May.

If they can’t work it out, the 76 committee members could wind up picking the nominee themselves, state GOP chairman Rich Anderson warned in a letter last month — something the party hasn’t done since 1978, when a plane crash claimed the life of Richard D. Obenshain, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate. It fell to the committee that year to select a substitute, John W. Warner.

That vote was taken “under extraordinary circumstances,” Anderson wrote to committee members. “Four decades later, I don’t wish to employ this method.”

Chase invoked that possibility as she reacted to the ruling on Twitter.

“Apparently the Richmond Circuit Court is going to hand the noose to the [Republican Party] so they can go hang themselves,” Chase tweeted. “Sadly, the people of Virginia lost today.”

On the campaign trail, Chase has dismissed the need for many coronavirus precautions, declaring, “I don’t do covid.” She is the only senator who refuses to wear a mask when the body is in session. Senate staff built a three-sided Plexiglass box around her desk to protect other senators and staff.

But in court Friday, her attorney struck a more cautious note, warning that the GOP’s plan to meet in person during the pandemic was “reckless.”

In addition to Chase, the GOP candidates are: Del. Kirk Cox (Colonial Heights), a former House speaker; retired Army Col. Sergio de la Peña; former think tank executive Peter Doran; businessman Pete Snyder; and former Carlyle Group executive Glenn Youngkin.

The convention-primary question is always a source of spirited debate for the party, but it’s been especially heated this year given the large field. Conventions tend to favor the most conservative candidates because only the most hardcore party activists are willing to travel across the state to participate. But those calculations have been upended this time.

Chase, recently censured by the state Senate after praising U.S. Capitol rioters as “patriots,” might be expected to fare well at a convention. But she’s been opposed to it, saying party insiders would rig it against her. And establishment Republicans who typically favor primaries but oppose Chase voted for a convention, figuring she could not garner the required majority vote — 50 percent plus one. In a primary, she could win with a plurality.

Also pushing for a convention: Snyder supporters who feared a primary because Youngkin, with his hundreds of millions of dollars, could outspend Snyder, a social media pioneer worth tens of millions. Primary campaigns typically rely more heavily on expensive TV advertising than conventions, where grass-roots ties are more important.

In a series of marathon meetings since December, the committee has voted repeatedly, but narrowly, to pick its nominee at a convention. The party could get around the virus restrictions with an nontraditional convention format, probably involving multiple locations and ranked-choice voting so delegates would not have to stick around for multiple rounds of balloting.

Lee E. Goodman, a former Federal Election Commission chairman who argued on behalf of the party in court, mentioned a “massive Zoom” as a possibility.

But that sort of “unassembled” convention would require a change to party rules, which a 75 percent supermajority of committee members would have to sign off on. Pro-primary members of the committee have so far refused to agree to that.

Sen. Amanda Chase is censured for praising U.S. Capitol rioters