State Central Committee members who pitched the idea acknowledged before the vote that they had no formal agreement with Liberty, saying the party could pursue that only after the committee signed off on the principle.
But Liberty seemed to have been caught off guard as news spread that the GOP had settled on a convention on campus. The school issued a statement Wednesday saying it had fielded only a broad inquiry from the GOP, with no discussions about the number of parking spaces needed or the rental cost. Even the date — May 8 — was a surprise to Liberty. The party had previously discussed a May 1 convention.
“So far, Liberty has not agreed to any particular plan or contract,” the statement said, going on to add that the school would rent its parking areas to any political party if asked, as it has done in the past for carnivals, circuses and car shows.
The school stressed that even if they come to terms, the party will pay “full rental cost.” Critics have questioned the university’s status as a nonprofit, which are banned from political campaign activities, particularly after former Liberty president Jerry Falwell Jr. became a strong advocate for Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential primary and beyond. Falwell stepped down last year after personal scandals.
State GOP spokesman John March said the party and Liberty were “working it out.”
“Likely just a lack of communication somewhere,” he said. “Not as big of a deal as everyone is going to make it.”
Liberty’s reaction to the plan adds one more twist to the party’s months-long drama over how it will choose its standard-bearer in fall elections.
Party leaders are always split over whether to pick its statewide nominees in conventions, which tend to favor more conservative candidates, or primaries, which tend to produce more moderate figures. But the battle has been especially pitched this year as the GOP, which hasn’t won a statewide contest since 2009, sees a chance to regain its footing in an increasingly blue state.
Some of the six Republicans seeking the nod inflamed tensions by weighing in — publicly and behind the scenes — because they saw advantages and disadvantages to one nomination method or the other. And some convention supporters warned that in a crowded field, a fringe candidate could win with a plurality. In a convention, the winner needs a majority.
The coronavirus pandemic also fed into the debate. Primary backers argued that a traditional, day-long convention would be illegal under pandemic restrictions likely to still be in place by spring because it involves assembling about 10,000 delegates in one spot.
There was a way around that, with a nontraditional format involving multiple locations and ranked-choice voting. But convention supporters could not muster the supermajority needed to allow an “unassembled” convention.
The committee narrowly voted for a convention in early December, but members who preferred a primary pushed unsuccessfully to reverse that decision at a series of marathon online meetings. Tuesday night’s Zoom was their last-ditch effort, although the deadline for the party to request a state-run primary passed earlier that day.
They made a pitch instead for a party-run primary, also known as a party canvass, a process that would have allowed vastly greater voter participation.
Three former Republican governors — Robert F. McDonnell, James S. Gilmore III and George F. Allen — urged the committee to choose a party canvass in a letter Tuesday, saying it was the only viable option to meet virus restrictions. But that proposal narrowly lost, with 34 members in favor, 36 opposed and five abstaining.
Convention supporters then offered a plan for a drive-in event at Liberty. Supporters touted that as a way to assemble activists in one location while observing virus restrictions. Because it did not require a change to party rules, that plan was able to prevail on a simple majority vote, with 37 in favor, 31 opposed and six abstaining.