The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Virginia GOP readies for nominating convention, Trump looms large

(Clockwise from top, left to right) Republican gubernatorial candidates Glenn Youngkin, state Sen. Amanda F. Chase (Chesterfield), Del. Kirk Cox (Colonial Heights), Peter Doran, Pete Snyder and retired Army Col. Sergio de la Pena. A seventh candidate, Octavia Johnson, has not provided a photo. (Heather Rousseau for The Washington Post, Ryan M. Kelly/AP, Steve Helber/AP, de la Peña campaign, Doran campaign)

RICHMOND — Republicans will pick their nominees for Virginia governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general Saturday at a novel and unpredictable convention with just one certainty: former president Donald Trump still dominates the GOP in a state where he got walloped.

Seven candidates — a modern record — are vying for the gubernatorial nomination in an ­“unassembled” convention, in which party delegates will cast ranked-choice ballots in 39 polling places around the state. The untested format was borne out of coronavirus pandemic restrictions and a protracted game of chicken between rival factions of the state party’s governing board. After months of wrangling between those who wanted a traditional convention and others who wanted a safer — and more accessible — process, they cooked up the “unassembled” plan.

Unorthodox Republican contest for Virginia governor breeds confusion, suspicion

Since early December, the candidates and their allies on the board have fought bitterly over whether to have a primary or convention, how to structure the convention and how to tally the votes. Their last big blowout, which drew the intervention of Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, centered on whether to let Jewish people and others with religious objections cast absentee ballots ahead of the Sabbath-day convention.

The contest will decide who leads the party into fall elections that will be viewed nationally as an early referendum on President Biden and serve as a potential bellwether for next year’s congressional midterms. It will also be seen as a first test of whether Republicans can, with Trump out of office, win back the suburbanites who over the past four years have left the party in droves.

Despite the high stakes and the nonstop infighting, the one thing Virginia Republicans haven’t disputed is Trump’s place in the party, which hasn’t won a statewide election since 2009 and only saw its losses mount while he was in the White House.

To varying degrees, all seven candidates have aligned themselves with the former president or his policies — despite Trump’s dismal record in the state, which he lost by five points in 2016 and 10 points last year.

Of the four contenders who’ve led in polls and fundraising, only Del. Kirk Cox (Colonial Heights) will say President Biden was legitimately elected. And even he gives a wink to Trump’s false claim that Democrats stole the 2020 election. The other three — state Sen. Amanda F. Chase (Chesterfield) and business executives Pete Snyder and Glenn Youngkin — are all in.

“There’s no Liz Cheney,” said Bob Holsworth, a veteran Richmond political analyst, referring to the Republican congresswoman from Wyoming who has repeatedly rejected Trump’s unfounded election fraud claims and blamed him for the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. “They’ve either hired Trump’s people, they’ve gone down to visit him or they are talking about how they share his perspective.”

Whoever wins the nod will have to pull off an awkward balancing act in November — keeping the Trumpian base engaged without turning off the suburban swing voters so repulsed by Trump that, during his time in the White House, purple Virginia turned blue.

But the nomination battle — which also includes retired Army Col. Sergio de la Peña, former think tank executive Peter Doran and former Roanoke Sheriff Octavia Johnson — is a different story.

With Trump still highly popular with the state’s GOP activists, the very people who tend to participate in conventions, not one of the candidates is challenging his grip on the party. To do otherwise could put them in the same political peril as Cheney, whose outspokenness about Trump is expected to result in her ouster next week as the
No. 3 House Republican leader.

All of the candidates tout their devotion to gun rights, free enterprise, school choice, religious freedom and law enforcement. They all bash unified Democratic control in Richmond for pandemic-era school closures and business restrictions and last summer’s civil unrest that began after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.

The pressure to appeal to the party’s Trumpian base is especially keen given that the party’s governing board opted — after months of intense infighting — to choose its nominee at a convention, where participants are chosen by local party leaders, rather than at a primary, which is open to any registered voter.

As nomination battle for Va. governor revs up, some worry the GOP is stuck in neutral

Traditional Republican conventions, where thousands of delegates gather under one roof, tend to favor the most conservative candidates because only the most hardcore activists are willing to travel across the state and devote a full day to multiple rounds of voting.

The outcome is less predictable this year given the unorthodox “unassembled” format, which the party agreed to in grudging deference to state’s limits on crowds during the pandemic.

At the last GOP gubernatorial convention, in 2013, 13,548 Republicans signed up to be voting delegates, but only 8,042 of them actually showed up at the Richmond Coliseum to cast ballots, according to party records.

Party leaders have no idea how many of the record-smashing 53,914 Republicans who’ve signed up to vote this time will show up. Turnout could be greater since voting will be more convenient than usual, with multiple polling places and delegates casting a single, ranked-choice ballot.

Even if every delegate shows up, the number will fall far short of the nearly 366,000 Virginia voters who cast ballots in the 2017 gubernatorial primary former RNC chairman Ed Gillespie narrowly won over Trump acolyte Corey Stewart.

Nor do party leaders know how long it will take to tally the ballots — by hand, at the insistence of three candidates wary of potential cheating — given the complications posed by ranked-choice voting and a weighting system that gives votes from redder parts of the state more heft than those from bluer ones.

To win, a candidate must garner a majority of the vote, not a mere plurality. In prior conventions, that usually meant multiple rounds of voting, with the lowest performer dropping off after each round. This time, voters will cast one ballot that allows them to rank each candidate on a scale of one to seven. Once a candidate is eliminated, their supporter’s second choice is counted.

The counting won’t begin until Sunday afternoon and is expected to take several days. The counters will start with the four-way race for the attorney general nomination, which is being sought by Del. Jason S. Miyares (Virginia Beach), a former prosecutor; Chuck Smith, a former Navy judge advocate general; Jack White, an Army veteran and former clerk for
Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.; and Leslie Haley, a Chesterfield County supervisor and law firm owner.

Next they’ll tally the votes for lieutenant governor, which is being sought by Puneet Ahluwalia, a political and business consultant in Fairfax County; Lance Allen, a national security company executive in Fauquier County; Del. Glenn R. Davis Jr. (Virginia Beach); former state delegate Timothy D. Hugo (Fairfax); Maeve Rigler, a lawyer; and former delegate Winsome Sears (Norfolk).

Votes for the gubernatorial nomination — the most consequential of the three contests — will be tallied last.

Democrats will choose their candidate at a June 8 primary. All are seeking to succeed Gov. Ralph Northam (D), whom the state constitution prohibits from serving back-to-back terms.

Among the Republicans, Cox has approached Trump with the most caution. While he acknowledged Biden’s win, he has praised certain aspects of a new election law in Georgia that supporters say will ensure election integrity and critics call an attempt at voter suppression.

After spending three decades in the House — and two years as speaker — prioritizing what he calls “practical solutions to everyday issues,” Cox is serving up some of the sizzling cultural issues that Trump popularized. In one ad, for instance, Cox blasts “cancel culture” for Major League Baseball’s decision to protest the new Georgia law by yanking the All-Star Game out of Atlanta.

Youngkin, the former co-chief executive of the private equity giant the Carlyle Group, devoted a TV ad to a video clip of Trump praising Youngkin by name for helping negotiate a trade deal with China. On the stump, he often lauds Trump for creating a “rip-roaring economy.” Youngkin has made “election integrity” a focus of his campaign.

On Thursday, Youngkin barnstormed the state with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who whipped up crowds in Danville, Virginia Beach, Chesapeake and elsewhere with promises that Youngkin will “stop the dead from voting Democrat.” Days earlier, Youngkin appeared on TV with Fox News’s Tucker Carlson claiming that Virginia is eliminating accelerated math in the name of equity — something state education officials have flatly denied.

No, Virginia is not moving to eliminate advanced high school math classes

Also last week, Youngkin won the endorsement of Stewart, who championed Confederate monuments as the GOP’s unsuccessful challenger to Sen. Tim Kaine in 2018. Youngkin did not acknowledge Stewart’s videotaped endorsement, but his regional political director, Gavin Humble, forwarded it to GOP groups around the state.

Snyder, a businessman and former Fox News contributor, was the establishment favorite in 2013 when he unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor. In a 2015 Fox Business appearance, Snyder said Trump’s immigration policies made him sound “like a racist jerk.”

Despite that past criticism, Snyder is running for governor now as a bombastic Trump fan bent on “breaking the teachers unions, making woke liberals cry [and] backing President Donald Trump’s policies,” according to a flier promoting for an event Wednesday headlined by Sarah Sanders, Trump’s former spokeswoman.

Snyder tapped Ken Cuccinelli, a former state attorney general and Trump’s former acting deputy secretary of homeland security, to lead his “ballot security operation.”

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

Most flamboyantly pro-Trump of all is Chase, who last summer marched through Richmond alongside far-right “boogaloo boys” sporting an elephant-print skirt and an AR-15. The self-declared “Trump in heels” urged the president to declare martial law as a means of hanging onto power after the election and praised the Trump supporters who attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6 as “patriots.”

She traveled went to Florida last month to try to win Trump’s endorsement, approaching him at a Mar-a-Lago reception and asking for his support. She got only a fist-bump out of the former president.

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Trump has not endorsed anyone in the race but signaled through spokesman Jason Miller that he’s happy with the whole GOP field.

“I know the president looks forward to supporting the Republican nominee,” Miller said.

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