Virginia gubernatorial contender Ed Gillespie this week is holding town-hall-style events across the commonwealth, billed as a chance for undecided voters to meet the Republican nominee six weeks out from Election Day.
But Gillespie’s campaign is restricting access to these events by requiring prospective attendees to sign up through an online lottery, an unusual move that the campaign says is necessary because of limited seating and high interest.
Both Gillespie, a longtime GOP operative who ran for Senate in 2014, and his Democratic opponent, Ralph Northam, prefer smaller, controlled events to rallies.
“There are space concerns, and we want to give everyone a fair shot,” said Gillespie spokesman Dave Abrams.
He declined to say whether the campaign was screening people who signed up. Republican members of Congress, including Rep. Thomas Garrett (Va.), have drawn criticism for holding lotteries to decide which constituents may attend town hall events.
Photos from the first stop of Gillespie’s “InformED Decisions” tour, in Norfolk, show several empty seats and unused tables behind the stage. He fielded questions at the gathering about abortion, guns and how he would work with President Trump, among other topics.
Bob Holsworth, a veteran observer of Virginia politics, said the use of a lottery for Gillespie’s statewide swing strikes him as part of the broader trend of state campaigns preferring controlled environments and friendly audiences.
“Crowds aren’t beating down the door to get to see Northam or Gillespie right now,” Holsworth said. “It’s hard to believe that this is going to be run like a conventional lottery where names will simply be picked out of a hat. It’s obviously a way of discouraging potential protesters.”
Gillespie often faces protesters on the campaign trail who heckle him to take a position on the latest controversy involving Trump.
Abrams said the only person the campaign prevented from attending the first stop of the tour was Kevin Donohoe, the communications director for the state Democratic Party. Everyone else who signed up online was able to attend, and people were able to register at the door at Monday’s stop in Danville. A photo of the event tweeted by the campaign showed several empty seats.
“These events are expressly for Virginians who are making up their minds about this election,” Abrams said. “We’re pretty sure the communication director at the Democratic Party of Virginia has made up his. If he wants to attend more campaign events, he should tell his candidate, Ralph Northam, to actually schedule some.”
Northam, the lieutenant governor, hasn’t held formal town halls but has taken questions from voters at roundtables, picnics and meet-and-greet events that do not use a lottery system but also are not broadly advertised by the campaign.
Unlike Gillespie’s campaign site, Northam’s does not list opportunities for undecided voters to meet the candidate, instead highlighting canvassing and volunteer opportunities under its events page.
During the gubernatorial primary cycle, Democrat Tom Perriello frequently held town hall events that drew Northam supporters who asked him sharp questions about his past opposition to gun control and abortion access.
Gillespie’s swing runs through Sunday, with additional stops in Richmond, Roanoke, Harrisonburg and Leesburg. His campaign says they will be aired live on his Facebook page, barring technological snags.
Paul Schwartzman contributed to this report