RICHMOND — Glenn Youngkin had not yet officially entered this year's race for Virginia governor when a fellow Republican on Friday rolled out a blistering online ad meant to stop the Great Falls businessman from snagging the nomination.
The ad, along with a flurry of anonymous anti-Youngkin text messages recently blasted to Republicans, signals that the GOP nomination battle has shifted into high gear. At the same time, the Republican Party of Virginia remains stalled over the contest’s most elemental question: How will Republicans pick their nominee?
The party’s governing body voted in early December to hold a nominating convention instead of a statewide primary, touted at the time as way to sideline the most Trumpian contender, state Sen. Amanda F. Chase (Chesterfield). But the State Central Committee could take the rare step of reversing that decision — something the party hasn’t done since 2012 — when it meets again Saturday.
The committee is ostensibly taking the matter up again because of the novel coronavirus, given that large, in-person gatherings such as a convention could still be prohibited later this year. But the do-over is also an exercise in political calculation as the party navigates the lingering effects of Trumpism.
“The real question for the Republican Party is how toxic has the Trump era been for the party and is there a hangover?” said Bob Holsworth, a veteran Richmond political analyst.
Republicans are on shaky ground in this increasingly blue state, where the outgoing president is deeply unpopular but still has a grip on the GOP base. And the terrain has shifted unpredictably just in the past six weeks, since the committee narrowly decided a convention was the way to go, with fears about Chase’s candidacy seeming to tip the balance.
Chase, who had threatened to run as an independent rather than compete in a “rigged” convention, stayed in the race. And Youngkin — who had been widely expected to run only in a primary because those typically favor more moderate and well-financed candidates like himself — signaled Monday he would get in either way.
People on both sides of the convention-primary debate say they’re exasperated that the party, which hasn’t won statewide since 2009, is tied up in knots over its nomination method and not focused instead on how to reverse its long losing streak.
“Every discussion this year is not about, ‘What’s going to help us win?’ It’s, ‘How can we stop Amanda Chase from being the Republican nominee?’ ” said Cole Trower, a committee member who does not support Chase and thinks a primary is the only workable option during a pandemic.
John Fredericks, a Trump-aligned radio host who in the past has been critical of conventions, thinks it would be “completely insane” for the party to reverse itself.
“You can’t keep manipulating the nominating process at the 11th hour to deter or dissuade certain candidates,” he said. “It is an insane way to run a party.”
Virginia has no shortage of Republicans with their eyes on the Executive Mansion, although only three have formally declared: Chase and Del. Kirk Cox (Colonial Heights), a former speaker of the House of Delegates, and Sergio de la Peña, a retired Army colonel and former Trump appointee to the Pentagon.
Youngkin filed paperwork to establish his campaign Monday, and his campaign manager confirmed he plans to run, with a formal announcement “in the coming days.”
A political action committee formed to oppose Youngkin decided not to wait for him to officially join the race. Republican strategist Chris Jankowski said Friday that he has founded Virginia Cornerstone PAC, which he said is unaffiliated with any candidate. He declined to identify the source of its funding, saying that will be disclosed when campaign finance reports are due.
The PAC unveiled an online ad that paints Youngkin as an out-of-touch investor who would welcome tax hikes. It also says that Youngkin’s company outsourced American jobs and compromised care at a nursing home chain it acquired in 2007, with the latter based on a 2018 report in The Washington Post. The report did not mention Youngkin, who became co-chief executive of Carlyle in 2018.
“Sounds like somebody is scared of a conservative outsider with a proven track record of success,” a spokesman for Youngkin said in response.
At least one other Republican is expected to join the race: Pete Snyder, a wealthy social media pioneer who lives in Charlottesville. State Sen. Emmett W. Hanger Jr. (Augusta) said this week he’s still thinking about a bid.
An even larger field of Democrats is running to succeed Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who is prohibited by the state constitution from serving back-to-back terms. Besides McAuliffe, the contenders are Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, state Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan (Richmond), former delegate Jennifer D. Carroll Foy (Prince William) and Del. Lee J. Carter (Manassas). Democrats will choose their nominee in a primary.
Republicans are often split over their nomination method, but the usual political calculus has been turned upside down this time. Conventions, typically day-long events open only to delegates nominated by their local GOP committee, tend to favor far-right candidates because only the most hardcore party activists participate.
But Chase, who might be expected to fare well in that setting, has opposed a convention, saying party leaders would rig it to undermine her. She has long been at odds with party leaders, who fear her flamboyant style would sink Republicans’ chances up and down the ticket.
At the same time, some Republicans who typically favor primaries but oppose Chase backed a convention in December, when she was threatening her independent bid. Even if she ran in the convention, they doubted she could garner the required majority vote — 50 percent plus one. In a crowded primary, she could win with a plurality.
That theory carried the day when the committee narrowly voted for a convention, but there was one catch: the pandemic. Given the health restrictions in place, committee members acknowledged that they probably could not hold a traditional convention — with thousands of people gathered under one roof.
They expressed hope for an “unassembled” convention, with multiple locations around the state and ranked-choice voting. The latter would allow voters to simply drop off a ballot rather than stick around for hours for multiple rounds of voting.
But the GOP cannot scrap its traditional convention process without a change to the party’s bylaws, known as the “party plan.” That sort of change requires the approval of 75 percent of committee members. That vote was put off until Saturday. If a supermajority doesn’t back the plan change, the committee will reconsider its original vote for a convention.
In between the two meetings, the competing camps have been pushing to stay the course or change it. Committee members have been subjected to “ceaseless” phone calls intended to “berate, bully, and badger” by an unknown group that supported a primary, GOP Chairman Rich Anderson wrote in a letter obtained by The Washington Post.
He lamented that the effort “creates suspicion and division among our [State Central Committee] family at a time when my goal is to unite our state party.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story did not include the name of Republican candidate Sergio de la Peña. The story has been corrected.