It’s got to be some kind of justice. Maybe the only kind Virginia Republicans can deliver.
Across the country, Trump-era Republicans have grown obsessed with various forms of voter access they believe advantage Democrats—most notably, letting as many folks who are eligible cast ballots. That’s the kind of “voter fraud,” they insist, that elected Joe Biden president, and Barack Obama before him. It must be stopped, they say.
But in Virginia this year the GOP’s byzantine process to nominate its candidate for governor will hurt one group the most—and that group is Republican voters. Two million Virginians cast ballots for Donald Trump in November (though he lost the state to Biden by 10 points). Only 53,500 “delegates,” selected by state and local party leaders, will be able to participate in the scattered-site nominating conventions the party set up to pick its gubernatorial nominee. Don’t take my word; listen to former Virginia GOP representative Denver Riggleman.
“The convention is about disenfranchising as many voters as possible, which seems to be the GOP way lately,” Riggleman told NPR last week.
Virginia Republicans have turned to nominating conventions before, believing that, since the state doesn’t make voters register by party, Democrats regularly crossed the aisle to vote in GOP primaries (presumably to select the least viable candidate, but the truth is that Republicans can do that on their own). Normally held in one place, in person, this year, because of the pandemic, they’ll have 37 different drive-up convention sites on Saturday, May 8. Then party leaders will get all the ballots to Richmond, and start counting the vote on Sunday. We may not know the winner for days.
Oh, did I mention they’ve also introduced ranked-choice voting, to preserve the kinds of negotiations that go on among campaigns at an in-person convention, as each candidate gets eliminated? In the first count, they’ll eliminate whoever gets the fewest first-choice votes, and then look at his (or her) voters’ next picks. Of course, this is nothing like what goes on at a normal, single-site, in-person convention. At least I think this is what will happen. It’s not entirely clear. To be fair, the Virginia GOP’s 2013 nominating convention drew only 8,000 voters; on the other hand, its 2017 statewide nominating primary turned out more than 378,000. And then there are the 2 million who voted for Trump.
It’s funny to me that, as a New Yorker, I’m struggling with this new RCV system—and many of us here are trying to figure out how to block the empty corporate “make New York fun again” Andrew Yang mayoral juggernaut, to elect a progressive instead—while Virginia Republicans are being forced to figure it out at least partly because some leaders are determined to block über-right state Senator Amanda Chase. The Chesterfield senator carries a pistol to the Senate floor, won’t wear a mask, and brags of being “Trump in heels.” She worked for ultra-right Virginia politicians including former Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and Representative Dave Brat. Amazingly, in a country that can’t get bacon and eggs designated bipartisan, both state parties came together to censure Chase after she praised the January 6 insurrectionists as “patriots.” This year’s convention clusterfuck is widely viewed, including by Chase, as an effort to block her nomination.
But to what end? All seven candidates represent the standard GOP ideological spectrum, from Trumpy to Trumpier, vying to be the Trumpiest. Three of the (presumed) top four, besides Chase—former House speaker Kirk Cox, social media entrepreneur Pete Snyder, former Carlyle Group executive Glenn Youngkin—have either business or political backgrounds that might let them address a broader palette of issues facing Virginia. But all have defaulted to making “voter integrity” their top issue.
Cox once compromised with Democrats (after they almost toppled his leadership in 2017) to bring Medicaid to the state, and he’s the only candidate who confesses to acknowledging that Biden won the White House legitimately. In this race, though, he’s promising to “go further” to restrict voting in Virginia than Georgia did in March. With their business backgrounds, Snyder and Youngkin might have chosen a path to the nomination more welcoming to the suburbanites who’ve abandoned Virginia’s GOP over the past decade. (I dunno—remember when Republicans talked about job creation?)
But they did not. Although Snyder ran for lieutenant governor in 2013 lamenting the GOP’s ideological shrinkage “from big tent to pup tent,” he’s now pitching a pup tent, albeit a very expensive one. With his money and influence within the Virginia Republican Party, Snyder is widely viewed as the driver of this year’s convoluted convention gambit. According to NBC’s Alex Seitz-Wald, the Virginia Republican Party discovered it didn’t have its own lawyer when its hired legal counsel, in the middle of this muck, confessed that he’d gone to work for Snyder. Meanwhile, Glenn Youngkin has no policy page on his website; his signature policy is his so-called “election integrity” plan.
It almost makes a lady journalist root for Chase, scary as she is. In a seven-way GOP primary election, among voters to whom Trump’s word is still gospel, Chase could conceivably have won, Virginia folks told me. With this dizzy, elaborate gambit of a “nominating convention,” and all of its weird wrinkles— did I mention that there are also city and county “weighting” requirements for vote counting?—she probably can’t win. But nobody knows.
Meanwhile, Chase is telling her supporters not to believe whatever Republican leaders put out claiming who’s won. “DO NOT TRUST THE PARTY TO DELIVER ACCURATE RESULTS,” she said in an e-mail to backers that was obtained by NBC News. “Who should you go to for the proper results? Me and my campaign! My campaign will be monitoring the voting and data entry on election night. If they are accurate, we will tell you. If they are not, I will be prepared to sue in court to force a public count.”
I assume Chase is talking to Rudy Giuliani right now—if he’s not too busy talking to his own lawyers.
When you’re all in for “election integrity,” perhaps this is the kind of plan you devise: one where about 2.5 percent of the 2 million Virginians who voted for Trump get to participate this time around. Imagine what they’d do if they were trying to keep the wrong kind of Democrats from voting.
The thing is, if the 37 mini-conventions gambit is really about boxing out Chase, it’s been a failure. The top contenders are running as Chase-lite; even if she loses, the winner will beg for her endorsement, and backing from her supporters. In trying to sideline Chase, they’ve become more like her.
As Democrats appear to be coalescing behind the candidacy of former governor Terry McAuliffe, against a field that offers two stellar black women candidates, one progressive, one liberal, a Democratic Socialist, and the scandal-scarred lieutenant governor, it’s hard not to notice that both parties are looking backward. But for Democrats at least, backward lies victory; Republicans haven’t won a statewide race since 2009. The GOP’s 37-stage primary palooza is not likely to change that.