For Virginia Republicans, Running Their Own Election Hasn't Gone Smoothly

Apr 30, 2021
Originally published on May 1, 2021 8:00 am

Virginia state Sen. Amanda Chase still believes — falsely — that the wrong man is in the White House.

"We want the right president put in office!" Chase told a crowd in Florida last week at a rally headlined by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga. "We the people will not shut up."

But there's another election Chase believes has been corrupted, one closer to home: a May 8 Virginia GOP convention to select nominees for statewide offices.

Chase, who is running for governor, has sent out fundraising emails with subject lines like "BREAKING: The Fix is In" and "PROOF OF CORRUPTION." She has unsuccessfully sued her own party to stop the convention and has publicly floated running as an independent if she believes the nominating process is unfair.

For months, Republicans like Chase have cast doubt on the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. The upcoming vote in Virginia presented the state party with the opportunity to run an election of its own.

It hasn't gone smoothly.

It's not unusual for Republicans in Virginia to gripe about the arcane rules of party-run nominating conventions, which attract a small fraction of the voters who participate in a state-run primary. But this year's complaints from Chase and other candidates come at a fraught moment for the party, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

"The pieces and factions of this state party are simply reflecting the kind of paranoia we're seeing from the Trump national party," Sabato said. "This has been instilled in the GOP now and I think we're gonna see a lot more of this in a lot more places."

Virginia allows political parties to choose between having a party-run convention or a state-run primary. Democrats opted for the primary. After months of debate, Virginia Republicans settled on their plan in March: More than 53,000 registered delegates will cast ranked-choice ballots next Saturday. The voting will happen at more than three dozen voting sites because of coronavirus restrictions. Delegates will choose GOP nominees for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.

The convention decision hasn't put to bed the bickering on the party's state central committee. In recent weeks, members has clashed on everything from vote-counting processes to whether to allow observant Jews to vote early, ahead of the Saturday Sabbath.

The back-and-forth has flummoxed the seven gubernatorial candidates as they try to deliver Republicans their first statewide election win since 2009.

Chase claims that the convention decision was designed to thwart her rise. Conventions attract far fewer participants than primaries and, with ranked-choice voting, they require majority support rather than a plurality — two factors that likely make for a steeper climb for Chase's divisive brand of populism.

At a GOP event last week at a farm outside Richmond, two other gubernatorial candidates shared concerns over the bumpy process.

Businessman Glenn Youngkin, who is running for office for the first time, said he had "great sympathy for Amanda Chase" and argued that "this has not been a straightforward process."

Kirk Cox, a longtime state lawmaker, made similar comments but stopped short of saying the election had been compromised.

"I don't think it's been a good process," Cox said. "But no, I don't think it's rigged."

Kirk Cox, a longtime state lawmaker, says the nominating convention system is not "a good process" but is not rigged.
Ben Paviour / VPM

Chase, Cox and Youngkin have all cried foul on attack ads from difficult-to-trace groups that they have suggested are tied to another candidate, Pete Snyder. Chase has gone further, alleging Snyder leveraged key contacts inside the party to tip the playing field in his favor. The former tech executive maintains he has played by the rules, and notes he, too, has been subject to attacks from third-party groups.

The Republicans' unease with the convention comes as they put forward "election integrity" plans designed to rewrite Virginia's voting rules. The top candidates for governor have all called for more restrictive voting measures, citing a lack of voter trust in the wake of former President Donald Trump's false claims of widespread voter fraud. Chase, Snyder and Youngkin have all played up connections to Trump, who lost Virginia by 10 percentage points but maintains strong support among conservatives.

All of the candidates voice confidence that they can overcome the process concerns to win the convention. And while Virginia GOP Chair Rich Anderson acknowledged the Trumpian rhetoric of fraud may have made his life a little more difficult, he thinks it will all work out well in the end.

"These are words flying," Anderson said. "This is not hot lead."

Anderson, a former state lawmaker, said staging the "logistically gargantuan" convention has not been easy. He personally favors primaries. Still, he understands convention advocates' argument that it's the best way to weed out Democratic voters, as any registered voter can vote in a state primary. Anderson says Republicans will also end up with candidates with broad support.

Former U.S. Rep. Denver Riggleman, R-Va., is skeptical. Riggleman lost his seat in a bruising convention fight last year, and he believes the "bulls***" system limits the party's ability to expand its voting bloc beyond the most conservative party activists.

"The convention is about disenfranchising as many voters as possible, which seems to be the GOP way lately," Riggleman said.

Anderson points out the convention has set a record for registered delegates. He believes the process will go smoothly and securely, with ballots protected by private, armed security.

But there's another parallel to the 2020 elections: It could take the party a few days to tally votes and to name winners.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

For months now, many Republicans have cast doubt on the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, and now that election has even become an issue in a primary to choose a Republican candidate for governor in Virginia. As Ben Paviour from member station VPM reports, that process is not going smoothly.

BEN PAVIOUR, BYLINE: Amanda Chase looks at home at this Republican rally at a farm outside Richmond. There's the cowboy boots and the American flag handbag where she keeps her gun.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AMANDA CHASE: How many of you are ready for a new governor?

(APPLAUSE)

PAVIOUR: Chase is competing with six other GOP candidates for the executive mansion. She's been outspoken with false claims about last year's elections.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHASE: I refuse to back down because I openly said the 2020 presidential election was stolen because it was.

PAVIOUR: Chase and the other GOP candidates argue that voters have lost trust in elections. But this time, Republicans can run their own election. That's because Virginia allows parties to choose between state-run primaries and party-run conventions. The GOP's top committee spent months debating the issue on Zoom.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHASE: Is someone talking? Because I don't want to take time away from somebody who's talking out of line.

PAVIOUR: Finally, in March, the committee settled on a statewide convention. It'll happen next Saturday at around 40 locations because of COVID restrictions. It was a decision that infuriated Chase.

CHASE: This whole process, this convention - and people know this was - designed to try to derail my candidacy.

PAVIOUR: Chase and other convention critics say it gives too much power to a small group of GOP insiders and the candidates connected to them. The self-described Trump in heels unsuccessfully sued the party and has threatened to run as an independent if she believes the results are suspect.

GLENN YOUNGKIN: I have great sympathy for Amanda Chase.

PAVIOUR: This is Glenn Youngkin's first run for office. He says the dithering has complicated his gubernatorial campaign.

YOUNGKIN: This is all new to me, but to see the to's and fro's (ph) and the inability to just make a decision and get on with it - I've said the whole time, you guys pick the process, give me the rules, and then we're going to go win it.

PAVIOUR: The party has continued to fight over convention details. Last week, they debated whether to allow observant Jews to vote early ahead of the Saturday election. Thomas Turner, chair of Virginia's Young Republicans, was furious the topic was even up for debate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THOMAS TURNER: Let them vote. We talk about voter integrity, and we're trying to suppress the vote. This is exactly what this is.

PAVIOUR: Turner's argument eventually won the day. Rich Anderson, who chairs the state party, says that was the right move. He says the whole stolen election rhetoric from last year may have made his life a little more difficult, but he's not complaining.

RICH ANDERSON: Sometimes people say to me because of the contention, hey, Rich, how are you doing? Well, I'm doing fine. These are words flying. This is not hot lead.

PAVIOUR: Anderson calls himself a primary guy, and he knows staging a statewide convention is not easy.

ANDERSON: We have selected a very complex process that's logistically gargantuan.

PAVIOUR: Still, convention advocates argue it's the best way to weed out Democratic voters. Anderson says they'll end up with candidates with broad support, people who can break the GOP's decade-long losing streak in Virginia. Former Congressman Denver Riggleman is skeptical.

DENVER RIGGLEMAN: It's just [expletive] - all of it.

PAVIOUR: Riggleman was unseated by his own party in a GOP convention last year. He says the process makes feudal lords out of Republican officials who shape key rules.

RIGGLEMAN: And the convention is about disenfranchising as many voters as possible, which seems to be the GOP way lately.

PAVIOUR: University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato says the convention fights are a symptom of a larger problem.

LARRY SABATO: The pieces and factions of this state party are simply reflecting the kind of paranoia we're seeing from the Trump national party.

PAVIOUR: Sabato says the distrust Trump planted will be difficult for the party to dislodge. The issue of trust is part of Saturday's convention. Virginia Republicans are hiring private security to monitor their ballots, which could take several days to count.

For NPR News, I'm Ben Paviour in Richmond. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.