The vote concludes a protracted struggle within the party that some prominent Republicans have likened to a distracting “dumpster fire” that overshadowed broader GOP campaign messaging. Party Chairman Richard Anderson recently conceded that he and fellow Republicans had been “fatigued” by the process.
The decision represents a compromise between members of the GOP State Central Committee who wanted a tightly controlled party-run convention and those who wanted a state- or party-run primary open to any registered voters.
Republicans who’d sought a primary had contended that method would help the party, which hasn’t won a statewide election since 2009, expand its membership and choose nominees with appeal to the swing voters crucial to winning general elections in the increasingly blue state.
But others argued that a convention would prevent the selection of fringe candidates, since the winner would need to garner a majority. In a crowded field, a candidate could win a primary with a plurality.
By a narrow majority, the committee voted in early December for a convention. But convention supporters could not muster the supermajority needed to square that plan with health restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic.
Crowd-size limits meant to stem the spread of the virus could have made it impossible to hold a traditional convention, typically a day-long affair in which thousands of delegates from across the state gather under one roof. There was a way around that, with an untraditional convention format — with multiple locations around the state and ranked-choice voting that would allow participants to cast a ballot and leave, rather than stay all day for multiple rounds of voting.
But 75 percent of committee members were needed to approve that sort of “unassembled” convention, and the pro-primary faction refused to budge at a series of marathon meetings.
The pro-convention wing seemed to eke out a win last month, when the committee narrowly approved plans to hold a drive-in convention at Liberty University. Committee members were told that participants would vote from their vehicles, parked in lots on the Lynchburg campus, after listening to candidate speeches piped into their car radios.
That plan fell apart almost immediately, as Liberty announced the next day that it had never agreed to host the event or even discussed it with organizers in any detail. The school said it would consider renting some off-campus parking lots it owns for the event, but Anderson said they later determined there was not enough space.
A handful of committee members from both factions hammered out a compromise ahead of Friday’s Zoom meeting, where it passed on a 56-to-15 vote, with two abstentions. Under the deal, Republicans will be allowed to vote closer to home, at a maximum 37 voting locations around the state. There will be ranked-choice voting.
The plan will make it somewhat easier for ordinary voters, not just party insiders, to vote. To participate in a traditional convention, a voter must be elected by the local committee to serve as a delegate, with each committee limited to a maximum number of delegates. Those elections take place at mass meetings, gatherings that would be likely to violate virus restrictions.
To avoid that, the committee agreed to lift the cap on the number of delegates who can vote from each GOP unit. That should eliminate the need to hold mass meetings.
Ordinary voters still face hurdles to participate, however, since they cannot just show up on the day of the convention to cast a ballot. They must apply in advance to be a delegate, and sign a pledge promising to support the eventual GOP nominee in the November general election.