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The Virginia GOP’s Ridiculous Convention by Car

Ballots, Buicks, and a ballroom break-in?
by Jim Swift
May 10, 2021
Featured Image
ANNANDALE, Virginia - MAY 8: Cars snake through the parking lot of NOVA Community College as the Virginia GOP holds a drive through primary to select candidates for the 2021 general election, in Annandale, Virginia. (Photo by Bill O'Leary / Washington Post / Getty)

Well, it’s over. The Virginia Republican Party has completed its Rube Goldberg exercise to select its slate of candidates to challenge the state’s increasingly dominant Democrats. The party’s convention, held this weekend, was closely watched by national reporters because of what it could portend about the future Trumpiness of the GOP.

As of this hour, only the race for the GOP nominee for state attorney general has been settled; the governor and lieutenant governor slots have not been filled.

Virginia (like New Jersey) holds its quadrennial gubernatorial election in the year after the presidential election. This is often referred to as a “correction election”—because the party that lost the preceding year’s presidential election tends to have good odds of winning, and the margins might be tea leaves for the following year’s midterms. In 2009, for example, Republicans won both the Virginia and New Jersey governorships (Bob McDonnell and Chris Christie respectively), and in the next year’s midterms, the GOP won back control of the House and gained seven seats in the Senate.

This year, instead of having a traditional primary run by the state, the Virginia GOP decided to have a drive-through “unassembled convention” in dozens of locations. This tactic is what the party used in 2020 to shove out former Rep. Denver Riggleman for, among other things, officiating a gay wedding. Riggleman’s district goes from the North Carolina border to the D.C. exurbs, meaning that more moderate voters from up north would have had to spend close to seven hours round-trip driving to a church in Lynchburg, Virginia, where, coincidentally, Riggleman’s opponent attends.

This time, the Virginia GOP opted for a convention to push out another candidate: Virginia State Senator Amanda Chase, who probably had a good shot at winning a normal primary. Chase is the Trumpiest of the three candidates with a reasonable shot. She’s like the Blazin’ wing sauce at Buffalo Wild Wings, you have to sign a waiver before you try it—which would make marketing executive Pete Snyder and former Carlyle Group CEO Glenn Youngkin the Wild and Mango Habanero. All are Trumpy and spicy, but to the electorate outside of die-hard Republicans, they might as well all be the same.

Keep in mind, this is the same party that previously nominated Corey Stewart and Ken Cuccinelli for statewide office. The days of Medium Ed Gillespie and Mild Bob McDonnell are over. The price of entry to Virginia Republican politics these days is a high-Scoville MAGA heat-unit rating.

The Road to a Drive-Through Convention

In an ordinary election year with ordinary parties, I would go to my polling place and choose which primary I wanted to vote in. Virginia does not have party registration, which is why, when the GOP presidential primary was canceled in 2020 despite the fact that candidates tried to run against Trump, I was able to join other Republicans in voting for Joe Biden in the Democratic primary.

This year, one of the main campaign issues from the crop of gubernatorial hopefuls was election integrity—despite the utter lack of evidence of problems relating to the integrity of Virginia’s election infrastructure. One Glenn Youngkin mailer I saved is entirely about him launching an “election integrity task force.” Almost every Pete Snyder mailer I have said he wants to “crack down on election fraud and make Virginia #1 in the nation for ballot security.” More on that in a moment.

Amanda Chase never mailed me anything, either because she realizes I’m not her brand of crazy voter, or she’s not wealthy like Youngkin and Snyder are. She is a full-on election truther. Meanwhile, the one candidate to publicly acknowledge Biden actually won last year, former Virginia House Speaker Kirk Cox, obviously stood no chance, as 61 percent of Virginia Republicans don’t think Biden legitimately won.

The party originally planned to proceed with an in-person convention instead of a primary. This was partly a wink to the #StopTheSteal crowd—how can you plan to hold a state-run primary when your party is spouting off lies about how bad election integrity is? But it was also an attempt by party leaders to shiv Amanda Chase, who occupies an unsweet spot: MAGA enough to have a chance of winning a state primary but too kooky to win in the general.

Initially, it was floated that the convention would be—where else?—Liberty University, again in Lynchburg. Meaning that if you wanted to vote for one of these candidates, you had to drive there. If you live in Ewing, Virginia, on the state’s western tip, that’s a ten-hour round trip. From Winchester, the northern tip? Six hours. Virginia Beach, the eastern tip? Eight hours. Chincoteague Island on Virginia’s Eastern Shore? Nearly eleven hours.

A lot of driving for people who don’t all come from Amanda Chase country. The Virginia GOP obviously decided to rethink this plan. (Officials at Liberty University were reportedly surprised at the idea, too, having not been consulted about hosting the convention.)

So the plan was changed to have 39 locations throughout the state where people could drive and vote. By way of comparison, the June 2019 Democratic primaries had 3,375 polling locations; in 2020, they had 2,245.

Oaths and Seals

But the process to actually become a “delegate” to cast a vote gets even weirder. Remember how Pete Snyder’s mailer said he wanted to “make Virginia #1 in the nation for ballot security?”

Here’s how the process worked for me: I got an envelope in the mail, from a candidate, and it had a letter, a final plea, asking me to become a delegate and support them. I was supposed to fill out a printed version of this PDF form, telling them my name, Voter ID number, address, email address, and phone number. And then I had to mail that back. The whole process did not give the impression of being designed by people who really cared much at all about election integrity. (Certainly none of my personal information was to be used for fundraising from WinRed, I’m sure. Right guys? Right?)

Note that, in filling out the form, you have to pledge: “By my signature below I certify that I am in accord with the principles of the Republican Party and that I will support its nominees in the November 2, 2021 General Election.” Is that legally binding? I’m not a lawyer, but my guess is no.

My mailing did not come with the creepy “Renunciation Statement” which you’re also supposed to sign.

It reads:

In accord with Article I, Section A, paragraphs 4 and 5 of the Plan of Organization of the Republican Party of Virginia, by my signature below I express that I am in accord with the principles of the Republican Party and intend to support its nominees in the future and I renounce my affiliation with any other party.

I understand that should I participate in the nominating process of another party, I may not participate as a member of the Republican Party of Virginia in its mass meetings, party canvasses, conventions or primaries for the next five years.

Remember, Virginia is an open primary state. Well, I guess not anymore. I wasn’t about to sign that anyway—not least because up north, where I live, the Virginia Republicans don’t have a history of offering many good candidates. But this strongly suggests that, at least in the near-term future, this is the model the Virginia GOP has settled on, rather than a traditional primary election.

Had I wanted to vote for one of the candidates on offer this weekend, I was lucky, sort of, because I live in a relatively dense area compared to most of the state. I would have only had to drive up state route 234 to the Prince William County Fairgrounds to wait in line in my car to vote. Virginia is not known for its long lines in actual elections, given the number of polling places. People in more rural areas? Well, not only would they have to drive, they would also have to wait when they got there.

My old Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign pal Rory Cooper, who, like me, lives in Northern Virginia, did not enjoy waiting.

And my fellow Northeast Ohioan Hugh Hewitt, a relative newcomer to Virginia, didn’t make it onto the rolls, and thus, could not vote:

The convention was on Saturday, May 8 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., but as long as you were in line at 4 p.m., your ballot would still count.

When you eventually got your ballot, the Virginia GOP changed things up a bit, going with ranked choice voting. Well, not exactly.

If a candidate won 50+ percent on the first round, he or she would be the nominee; if not, well, we’re going to go to other rounds until we have a mathematical winner.

Rather than just go by voter preferences, the party here is deferring to fewer than 53,000 people with the free time and interest to devote much of a Saturday to ranking GOP politicians. For some perspective, in 2017, 366,274 voters participated in the GOP gubernatorial primary.

But wait, there’s more. Remember the old slogan “one person, one vote”? The GOP threw that out the window, too, deciding to weight delegate votes based on how Republican the voters’ home counties are.

If you think back to all of the election shenanigans that QAnon adherents and #StopTheSteal people pulled in the wake of Biden’s electoral victory over Trump, don’t worry, the party that is dedicated to election integrity has you covered. As the Washington Post reports:

Results in the attorney general’s race were delayed by hours Sunday after party and campaign officials realized tape seals on the doors of a ballroom where ballots were stored overnight had been broken.

The discovery sent them into an investigative flurry that included interviewing a housekeeper, calling lawyers and reviewing security footage. They eventually were convinced that nothing was amiss; the housekeeper had simply carted in coffee, water and soft drinks.

There’s more:

Distrust was running so high during Saturday’s convention that two campaigns even tailed a car carrying ballots from Prince William County to Richmond because they did not trust the two party-appointed couriers.

“They are keyed up to an elevated level,” said Rich Anderson, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, outside the ballroom.

No shit.

Still more:

Around 3 p.m., a team of about 50 began hand-counting an estimated 30,000 ballots, a painstaking process that three gubernatorial contenders demanded amid fears that vote-tallying software the party had considered could not be trusted.

Not finished:

Most came by car, but boxes from Southwest Virginia were flown in on a six-seat plane, and ballots from Tangier Island started their journey on a boat.

Oh, and one more: The state GOP “had promised to hire armed security” to guard the hotel ballroom where the ballots were being stored, “but none appeared. Anderson said he thought the hotel was making the arrangements for a security guard, but the hotel apparently thought the party would handle it.”

Most secure primary ever!

As Goes Virginia . . .

It’s almost beyond parody that a party would go through this much self-inflicted pain and punish its supporters rather than acknowledge reality. Joe Biden won, Virginia has a good election infrastructure, and the GOP loses here because its voters are more likely to nominate a loser than not.

Heck, if even one of America’s preeminent conservative talk radio hosts—a lawyer, no less—couldn’t figure it out, maybe the Virginia GOP needs to look inward about its practices and the sorts of candidates (and voters) it attracts.

But hey, I’m confident they’ll figure out a way after this fiasco to really secure our elections and make Virginia #1 in the nation in ballot security. Assuming, of course, that, when their candidates’ campaigns aren’t chasing cars down to Richmond full of ballots, they, ya know, win.

What I’m looking forward to most, is that, whoever is the GOP nominee, he or she is going to promise to reopen schools “immediately” . . . upon taking office in January 2022.

That is, once we find out who from the newly christened anti-Big Tech party actually won the convention, from their official tabulation on Google Spreadsheets.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.