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At Virginia’s GOP convention, being second choice in governor’s race is a good Plan B

Republican candidates for Virginia governor (clockwise from top left): Glenn Youngkin, Sen. Amanda F. Chase, Del. Kirk Cox, Peter Doran, Pete Snyder and Sergio de la Peña. A seventh candidate, Octavia Johnson, has not provided a campaign photo.
Republican candidates for Virginia governor (clockwise from top left): Glenn Youngkin, Sen. Amanda F. Chase, Del. Kirk Cox, Peter Doran, Pete Snyder and Sergio de la Peña. A seventh candidate, Octavia Johnson, has not provided a campaign photo. (Heather Rousseau for The Washington Post, Ryan M. Kelly/AP, Steve Helber/AP, de la Pena campaign, Doran campaign)

RICHMOND — The race for second place is on.

The seven Republicans running for Virginia governor are making their final appeals to the record 53,000 delegates who’ve signed up to vote in their party’s May 8 nominating convention.

Because it’s a ranked-choice contest that requires a majority to win, ballots will be tallied over and over — meaning when a voter’s first choice is cut, their second choice gets counted.

So it helps to be a bunch of voters’ Plan B.

“Number two wins it,” said state Sen. William M. Stanley Jr. (R-Franklin), who made a video for candidate Del. Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) this week that combined full-throated endorsement — “We need to save Virginia . . . and this is the man that can do the job” — with a more modest ask: “If he’s not your first, please make Kirk Cox your second selection.”

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In the homestretch of an often-bitter campaign, in a business long on supersize egos, the path to the Executive Mansion involves a little groveling. Cox, a veteran state delegate and retired teacher who served two years as House speaker, has a low-key style that makes the second-choice pitch seem natural.

“Look, I understand I might not be everyone’s first choice,” Cox says in a video posted on Twitter. “But if not your first choice, I’d really appreciate you putting me down as your second.”

But the second-fiddle strategy is a tougher fit for some of the larger personalities in the race. Businessman Pete Snyder has spent much of the campaign with fiery pronouncements such as, “Pete won’t bend to the woke mob.” This week his campaign blasted an email from a normally hard-charging supporter, Ken Cuccinelli II, a former Trump immigration official and state attorney general.

“Even if Pete is not your first choice, you can vote to make him your second choice,” Cuccinelli’s email said.

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The state GOP settled on the ranked-choice voting — a system more often embraced by liberal groups — amid the coronavirus pandemic after a months-long procedural standoff on the state party’s governing body. The idea is to produce a consensus candidate, not someone who musters a mere plurality. There were concerns that a fringe candidate could win with a plurality in a primary given the size of the field — a modern record.

In addition to Cox and Snyder, the other Republicans are state Sen. Amanda F. Chase (Chesterfield), retired Army Col. Sergio de la Peña, former think tank executive Peter Doran, former Roanoke sheriff Octavia Johnson and former Carlyle Group executive Glenn Youngkin.

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

In a traditional convention, delegates from across the state gather under one roof for multiple rounds of voting until one candidate emerges with 50 percent plus one vote. Candidates who are still in the running use the time between rounds of voting to make short speeches to the crowd and, with their campaign teams, lobby delegates on the floor.

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But voting will play out differently this year because pandemic-era crowd limits prevented the delegates from gathering in one location. The party is instead holding an “unassembled” convention, with 39 polling places around the state. Rather than sticking around all day for multiple rounds of voting, delegates will cast one ballot, ranking each of the candidates in order of preference.

That means there will be no opportunity on May 8 to win over voters after their first choice has been eliminated, so candidates must pitch themselves for second place before the convention.

“In a real, in-person convention, you have a lot of negotiations between ballots,” said Jim Parmelee, campaign manager for de la Peña and a veteran of many Virginia GOP conventions. “This time it will kind of be a black box.”

As Snyder unsuccessfully sought the party’s nomination for lieutenant governor in 2013, he appeared in a dating-style video that urged delegates smitten with someone else to give him a look.

“You may have fallen for another candidate but that’s all right,” said Snyder, juggling a giant teddy bear, flowers and heart-shaped box of chocolates. “I met my wife, Burson, when she was on a date with another dude. . . . I will work hard to win you over.”

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Some candidates opt for a softer sell. At public campaign events, Youngkin has been asking voters committed to someone else to make him their second choice. But at least so far, he’s only done so in person, not in emails, ads or texts. Doran also has been asking delegates to make him their second choice, if not their first.

Youngkin and Cox have been saying nice things about each other at recent candidate forums, which could be a way to win favor with the other’s supporters. Youngkin has said he’d like Cox to serve as his secretary of education. Cox has said he’d like Youngkin to be his secretary of commerce and trade.

Cox followed up this week with an email — titled “What I Really Think Of My Opponents” — that praised all six of his rivals, albeit some more lavishly than others.

In an unusual alliance, Chase, Cox and Youngkin raised alarms about a vote-tallying system being pitched to the party in April, saying in a joint letter that it could not be trusted to determine the winner of the convention. The three candidates did not suggest in their letter that the method would favor any particular candidate, but in a speech Chase said Snyder was pushing for the software system.

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Snyder’s campaign spokesman declined to say at the time whether Snyder supported the system, but Snyder said he wanted the same thing as the other three: a transparent method for counting the votes. The party ultimately decided that it will tally them by hand.

Chase said her alliance with Cox and Youngkin on that issue was not meant as a signal to her voters about whom they should pick for second or third place. A Trump-style provocateur often at odds with members of her own party, Chase is the rare candidate not courting her rivals’ supporters.

Her strategy: “I’m asking everyone to put me as their first choice, second choice and third choice.”

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