The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Unorthodox Republican contest for Virginia governor breeds confusion, suspicion

Seven Republicans are vying for Virginia’s Executive Mansion. (Julia Rendleman/The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — Virginia Republicans are just a month away from picking their candidate for Virginia governor — not by voters going to the ballot box, but instead by way of a byzantine internal nomination process that has bred confusion and suspicion among the party faithful.

Longtime activists and newcomers alike are struggling to understand how to conduct and partake in the “unassembled convention,” an unorthodox format chosen by party leaders during a pandemic and a bitter GOP family feud.

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Some rank-and-file Republicans, a former Republican congressman and one contender for governor have publicly complained the whole thing has been rigged to favor one candidate or another. Most of the finger-pointing has been at candidate Pete Snyder, whose team pushed for a nominating convention over a primary.

But Snyder, who has made “election integrity” a top campaign issue, has said he has no need to tilt the playing field.

“Tell me the rules, make sure they’re clear and transparent, and give me enough time to prepare and we’ll do anything — and we’ll win,” Snyder said in a Facebook Live event in February.

As a nomination method, conventions are easier to manipulate than primaries because local party leaders control the application process, decide who is eligible to vote and pick the convention location.

“The whole thing about a convention is to disenfranchise as many people as possible and tilt it toward the candidate of choice for that committee,” said former congressman Denver Riggleman (R-Va.), who lost a June convention held in Lynchburg, his rival’s home, in a congressional district larger than New Jersey. The bulk of Riggleman’s supporters lived far north of there.

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Virginia does not register voters by party, so it’s up to local chiefs to decide if would-be delegates are sufficiently Republican. Anyone with a record of voting in Democratic primaries will be rejected. There’s an exception for those who’ve partaken in a single Democratic primary in the past five years, but they must renounce that vote verbally or in writing.

While those rejected may appeal to the state party, the system is notoriously ripe for abuse. In one memorable episode in 2018, a campaign challenged the Republican credentials of Kenny Klinge, a former executive director of the state GOP who had gotten his start in Virginia party politics in 1964 as a precinct captain for Barry Goldwater. Despite their roles as gatekeepers, party chiefs routinely endorse candidates and sometimes work as paid campaign staffers. Some of the paid staffers recuse themselves from the delegate filing process, but not all.

James R. Davis, an Army veteran disabled in combat in Iraq, is a big fan of gubernatorial candidate and state Sen. Amanda F. Chase (Chesterfield). When he asked in early March how to participate in the May 8 convention, the local party chief said he would have to become a member of the committee, a process he couldn't complete in time for the vote.

But that wasn't true, as Davis soon discovered and King George County Republican Committee Chairman Ron McElrath, who said he had been confused about the rules, later acknowledged in an interview. Davis applied to be a convention delegate online and, for good measure, handed a paper application directly to McElrath last week at the chairman's last-chance filing location — a meet-and-greet for Snyder.

He said it was just a central location . . . while his wife bakes chocolate chip cookies for the event. Come on,” said Davis, who thought the location smacked of favoritism toward Snyder. Staffers for another rival, Glenn Youngkin, voiced the same gripe as they turned in forms at that spot.

McElrath, who said he isn’t endorsing or working for any campaign, said he shows up at any candidate events in the county and Snyder’s just happened to coincide with the filing deadline.

“They’ve had over a week to either mail them, email them to me or drive them to my house,” McElrath said. “I was being open: ‘Hey, this is where I’m going to be.’ ”

Doubts about the process were sown early during a protracted battle within the party’s governing body over whether to hold a primary or convention.

Snyder’s team argued a convention would be the best way to ensure Chase, a self-described “Trump in heels,” would not secure the nomination — a prospect some Republicans think could doom the party in a state President Donald Trump lost last year by 10 points. There may have been other calculations: Primaries are open to all voters and are won and lost much like any statewide election, with expensive advertising. Conventions are an insider’s game, turning on connections to GOP committee leaders across the state.

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Snyder has both connections and wealth. He has been active in state politics since his failed bid for lieutenant governor in 2013, and he made tens of millions as a social media marketing pioneer. But he could be outspent by Youngkin, a former Carlyle Group executive worth an estimated $300 million.

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In an Feb. 22 interview, WRVA radio’s John Reid asked Snyder about rumors that he had hired “a bunch of the people” who would decide the nomination method. “I’ve heard all sorts of wild rumors and innuendo, but that’s a big no, absolutely not,” Snyder said.

But several State Central Committee members who voted for a convention have campaign or business ties to Snyder.

Dan Webb voted for a convention Dec. 5 — the very day he won a committee seat on a promise to support a primary, according to Del. Wendell S. Walker (R-Lynchburg). By the next meeting in mid-January, Webb was on Snyder's payroll as political director. Webb, who did not respond to requests for comment, recused himself from votes on the party’s nominating method after that. Webb won the committee seat with a key endorsement from Walker, the party’s outgoing Western District chairman. “I said, ‘Dan, the only way I would consider you is if you support a primary,’ ” said Walker, who now feels burned. “And he said that wouldn’t be a problem.”

One person who voted repeatedly for a convention is Eric Wilson, who in August 2019 tapped Snyder to lead an advisory board for his new business, Startup Caucus. In an interview last week, Wilson declined to say if Snyder invested in Startup Caucus. Snyder campaign spokesman Nathan Brand said Snyder has never invested in the company.

The party’s general counsel, Chris Marston, who made critical parliamentary rulings in committee meetings, is also a lawyer for Snyder’s campaign. Marston declined to comment. Party Chairman Rich Anderson said he recently “pulled him off all convention business” to avoid any appearance of a conflict.

The party’s governing board wrestled over the convention method with close votes and attempted do-overs between Dec. 5 and March 13.

On Jan. 15, the day before the committee was scheduled to take a second vote, the Snyder campaign hired one young committee member who had voted for a primary in the first round, rushing him a contract to sign electronically that Friday, according to two people with direct knowledge of the situation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a confidential employment matter.

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The next morning, a Snyder staffer texted the new hire to say the job created a conflict of interest, so he would have to recuse himself from committee votes. The new employee recused himself that day but then called Snyder and quit, telling others that he’d felt the campaign — though not Snyder personally — had only hired him to keep him from voting, the two people close to the situation said.

Snyder’s campaign acknowledged it hired a pro-primary committee member who promptly quit because he wanted to continue voting. But it said the hiring had not been a ploy to remove a pro-primary vote.

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Chase threatened late last year to run as an independent if the party chose a convention, saying it would be rigged against her. But she backed down and has stayed in the Republican race. Last week, she renewed her threat with a twist: She’ll accept the convention result unless Snyder wins.

“If Pete Snyder is chosen as the nominee, I will probably run as an independent because his campaign — and other campaigns feel this [way] as well, they’re just not willing to be as vocal as I am — but it is Pete Snyder’s campaign that is running a rigged election,” she said on “The Jeff Katz Show” on WRVA radio. “I will support any other candidate that wins if I lose.”

A Snyder campaign spokesman said her claims were baseless.

Seven candidates are vying for the nomination. In addition to Chase, Snyder and Youngkin, the contenders are Del. Kirk Cox (Colonial Heights), retired Army Col. Sergio de la Peña, former think tank executive Peter Doran and former Roanoke sheriff Octavia Johnson. With the race seemingly wide open, more Republicans than ever are eager to weigh in, including many who have never taken part in a convention. Part of the appeal this time is logistical. Because of crowd restrictions during the pandemic, voting will not take place under one roof but in dozens of locations around the state, so delegates will not have to travel so far to attend. And there will be ranked-choice voting, so delegates will not have to hang around for multiple rounds of balloting.

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Local party leaders aren’t used to people beating down their doors to be delegates, which might explain some of the confusion about who can participate. Usually only the most hardcore activists are willing to schlep across the state and give up a full day for a convention.

Anderson, the state chairman, said Republicans should have confidence in the system, noting that he has appointed a credentials committee to review any challenges to would-be delegates. But he said activists and campaigns were right to be on high alert.

“Well, it’s politics,” Anderson said. “And you’d better be watchful.”