RICHMOND — The Republican Party of Virginia State Central Committee’s vote to nominate their 2013 statewide candidates by a convention rather than a primary exposes a palpable rift in the state party just as it’s gearing up for a high-stakes U.S. Senate race and a presidential contest that could hinge on whether the Old Dominion goes red or blue in November.
On the winning side - the convention advocates - lie diehard conservatives and supporters of Rep. Ron Paul, Texas Republican, many of whom were only recently elected to positions that serve on the State Central Committee.
On the other side are Gov. Bob McDonnell and Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who had lobbied heavily for a primary to take on Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II for the 2013 GOP gubernatorial nomination. The committee had voted in October to hold a primary to decide its nominees.
“To change those rules when people have gotten into the race, have adopted a strategy on how to win or how to compete based on convention versus primary … I think is just completely the wrong thing to do,” Mr. McDonnell, currently on an overseas trade mission, said recently. “Because you might have a new group that comes in six months from now that changes it back, and you just cannot do that. You set the rules, and you stick to it.”
But the State Central Committee rebuffed the wishes of the state’s top Republican, who won his own 2009 nomination at a convention, on a 47-31 vote.
Proponents of nominating conventions, where a small group of party activists choose the party’s nominee, say they save the state money and keep Democrats and independents from meddling in GOP business, since voters do not register by party in Virginia.
But primary fans say that exclusivity is not necessarily a good thing. For example, Mr. Bolling noted that conventions preclude active-duty military personnel from participating.
“This decision creates the impression that our party is an exclusive party, as opposed to an inclusive party, and that is not the message we should be sending to the people of Virginia,” he said.
He added that the move may create legal questions - but, well aware of potential division, said he would not pursue legal action to try to have it reversed.
“Right now, our party needs its focus firmly fixed on electing Mitt Romney, George Allen and our Republican congressional candidates in November,” he said. “I will not take any action that might further divide our party or distract our attention from the 2012 campaigns.”
Observers have argued that a convention would favor Mr. Cuccinelli, saying the electors would be more ardent, involved - and conservative - party activists, with whom the crusading attorney general enjoys wide appeal.
But Mr. Bolling indicated he had no intention of backing down, saying that he has the support of hundreds of party leaders and thousands of grass-roots activists “who share my vision of mainstream, results-oriented conservative leadership for families and businesses in our state.”
“With their help, I am confident that we can defy the political pundits and win in a party convention, just like we would have won in a statewide primary,” he said.
Mr. Cuccinelli has said he prefers conventions to primaries, but was not behind the effort to switch the method of nomination for 2013.
Democrats are scheduled to decide in September how they are going to nominate their candidates next year. Terry McAuliffe, who launched an unsuccessful bid for governor in 2009, has indicated he plans to run again, but wants to wait until after the November elections to make a formal announcement.