Why Virginia's Tea Party Wants the GOP to Ditch its Primary in 2016

Tea partiers have the clout to switch from a primary to a convention, but some establishment members say it will hurt the party in the general election.

Ken Koeppe wears tea bags on his hat during an Americans For Prosperity rally. (National Journal)

In Virginia, tea-party and establishment Republicans agree that the state party is struggling. It would be hard to argue otherwise. A GOP candidate hasn't won a statewide race there since 2009, and Barack Obama carried Virginia in both of his campaigns. Beyond that, the state's 2012 Republican presidential primary was a disaster, with only two candidates even qualifying for the ballot.

What they can't agree on, however, is how to fix what's broken.

Entering the 2016 White House race, Virginia Republicans see the potential to reverse their fortunes. The state will once again be a crucial general-election battleground, and—with the state's voters set to weigh in early in the nominating process—the party believes its members can play an important role in selecting the nominee.

But first, they have to determine how exactly they plan to hold their nominating contest.

Generally, establishment members want to hold a primary election, as the party has in three of the past four presidential cycles. But tea party-aligned members, who currently control the Virginia GOP state central committee, are pushing instead for a nomination convention—a process through which a select group of delegates choose between the candidates.

On June 27, the committee will decide which way to go, and with the tea-party faction holding sway, establishment members are worried, saying the convention could only diminish the state's role in the nomination process and hurt Republicans' chances for victory in the general election.

"They would be absolute idiots to go to a convention," said Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman from Virginia. "We have a group there that is more concerned about chasing heretics out of the church than welcoming in converts. And that's why we've been losing elections."

Davis, who decided not to run for Senate in 2008 because the party chose a convention system, and others who prefer a primary argue that going with a convention in 2016 would deprive Virginia Republicans of an important opportunity to expand the party's reach. Presidential primaries in Virginia draw hundreds of thousands of voters, including first-time and unaffiliated voters whom the party wouldn't otherwise have the ability to target for the general election. By comparison, only a few thousand Republicans usually participate in statewide conventions.

"There just isn't anything else that the Republican Party of Virginia can do that will attract that large a number of people," said Mike Thomas, the first vice chairman of the state GOP, who supports a primary. "I think if you ask virtually any campaign out there, 'If I could give you a list of 8,000 Republicans or a list of 400,000 Republicans, which do you want?' It's obvious."

Those who favor a convention over a primary, however, don't think the size of the party's tent has been the GOP's main problem in recent elections. To them, the bigger issue is that the party's conservative base has not been motivated enough, and they believe a convention would help solve that problem. Typically, only the most ardent party activists are willing to spend the time and resources necessary to participate in a complicated and lengthy convention process, so they would have a much greater say in picking the winner compared to a primary.

"The people who come to conventions power the campaign in the state," said Ken Cuccinelli, the former state attorney general who won the party's 2013 gubernatorial nomination through a convention. "So a convention is a tremendous opportunity to attract and recruit activists who will carry the winning campaign over the finish line in November. You may not have as many people numerically participate, but the ones that do engage in the campaign to help the nominee actually win to a degree that just does not happen in a primary."

A convention system would benefit a candidate like Rand Paul, who is well-liked among the party's grassroots activists, while a primary would better suit a candidate like Jeb Bush, who is expected to perform well among the more moderate and independent voters who are much less likely to attend a convention.

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.

Whitbeck said he has been in contact with the Republican National Committee and "the majority" of the 2016 GOP presidential hopefuls about the issue, but added that none of them are trying push him one way or the other.

One member of the state central committee, Chip Muir, has proposed a compromise that he hopes will prevent future infighting: hold a primary for the 2016 presidential race, but a statewide convention for the 2017 gubernatorial contest. Whether it will gain any traction remains to be seen.

"It's really an effort to start focusing on winning election outcomes rather than getting bogged down with nomination-method preferences," Muir said.