None of the state's leading convention advocates are publicly aligned with a candidate. That includes Russ Moulton, a top conservative activist in Virginia who is rallying support for a 2016 convention. Moulton said that he is going to "reserve judgment" on Bush, who officially launched his campaign on Monday, but added, "I think a lot of conservative Republicans have pause about Mr. Bush and fear that we might be repeating the mistakes that we made when we nominated Mitt Romney, someone that our base wasn't highly motivated by."
Some Republicans also worry that ditching the primary could jeopardize Virginia's early and influential slot on the nominating calendar. If Virginia sticks with a primary, that contest would likely take place on March 1, making it among the first group of states to vote after the four early-nominating states—Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. A statewide convention would almost certainly take place later than that.
"I think the way this proposal is crafted, it actually makes Virginia less influential than we've ever been," Thomas said.
But Moulton said his allies on the state central committee are eyeing March 19 as a possible date for the convention, which he argued could actually give the state even more influence because it could award all of the delegates to the winner, instead of dividing them up among several of the top finishers.
Convention supporters also point to how much trouble presidential candidates have had simply getting their name on the primary ballot. In 2012, candidates were required to submit 10,000 signatures, including 400 from each congressional district, to appear on the ballot, a feat that only Mitt Romney and Ron Paul accomplished. Those figures have been cut in half for the 2016 election, but it's still one of the more difficult processes in the country.
"I want to see Virginians have a louder voice in the national debate," said state central committee member Eric Herr, who supports a convention. "Last time, we essentially were mute and it cost a couple million bucks to run a primary that didn't matter."
This is far from the first time Virginia Republicans have fought over whether to use a primary or a convention, but those fights were usually limited to gubernatorial and Senate races. The state central committee, however, saw massive turnover in the spring of 2012, allowing those aligned with the tea party and the libertarian wings of the party to gain power. They successfully lobbied for a convention in the GOP's 2013 and 2014 statewide primaries, and now are aiming to do the same for 2016.
For now, Virginia Republican Party chairman John Whitbeck is staying neutral in the debate, although he has favored conventions over primaries in the past. If the final vote between his fellow 84 members on the state central committee results in a tie, however, Whitbeck would cast the deciding ballot.