david kerr H&S

Who is going to be the Republican nominee for governor in 2021?  

If the party was having a primary, something it shied from this year, there would be polls and a much more public presence for the GOP nominees as they seek the nomination.  So we could make assumptions about the front-runner.  

However, this year it’s not so easy. The GOP’s “unassembled convention” Saturday, just a few days from now, is probably one of the most convoluted, confusing and downright bizarre selection processes in American political history.

There are several candidates – more on that in a moment – and lots of campaigning, but because it’s all focused on the limited number of people allowed to vote May 8 it might as well be occurring in secret as far as the rest of the Virginia electorate is concerned.

Here is a quick outline of the process – and if you get a headache trying to sort it out, you’re not alone.  Republicans will allow anyone who has filed to be a delegate to participate.  There was no cap on the number of delegates, and 53,000 signed up.  All they had to do was file the appropriate paperwork with their county chair and pledge to support the party’s nominee in the fall.  

On Saturday, they will vote at 37 different locations across Virginia, all drive-in, for the candidate of their choice.  However, to keep population and past GOP performance in their region in the equation, their relative voting strength will be adjusted by locality. 

That’s confusing enough.  However, it gets even more interesting. Delegates will make a first choice, a second choice, a third choice, and so on for each statewide office (governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general).  The nominee could be determined not by one vote, but after a gradual elimination process in which the second-choice votes are allocated until a nominee reaches 50%.  No one knows quite how it’s going to work.  It may be days before a nominee is chosen, and you can expect some legal challenges.

Yes, my head hurts now.  But this approach was made after the party decided that a COVID-era convention, originally planned at Liberty University, wasn’t necessarily safe.  So, we have this unusual hybrid selection process.  The decision as to whether to have a convention or a primary (as the Democrats are having in June) was hard-fought by party leaders. 

So, who are the candidates?  Seven people are running for the Republican nomination for governor.  However, three of them aren’t likely to get much traction.  The real contenders are state Sen. Amanda Chase, former House of Delegates Speaker Kirk Cox and businessmen Pete Snyder and Glen Youngkin.  Any surprise come-from-behind wins from the other three are unlikely.

Chase, the first choice as far as the Democrats are concerned, is one of the most controversial figures in Richmond.  She calls herself “Trump in heels” and lives up to the reputation.  She is pro-Second Amendment and then some, rides all the far-right issues with enthusiasm and even advocated that President Trump declare martial law to allow a “redo” of the states he lost in 2020. 

Now, lest this seem like she is too far out there to be a political force, think again – she has a loyal and motivated following.  She could get more first choices than many expect and could be a lot of delegates’ second choice.

Two other strong Trump supporters, neither of whom have held public office, are Pete Snyder and Glenn Youngkin.  Both are prosperous businessmen, and both are putting a lot of money into this unusual form of campaigning.    

At the moment it looks as though the Trump wing – maybe the only wing of the Virginia GOP with any power at the moment – is where the choice for the nominee is going to come from.

However, there is an alternative.  Cox, a definite establishment Republican – a phrase that’s pejorative in some GOP quarters – is, while conservative, arguably the least associated with the Trump wing of the party.  He has a strong backing from members of the House of Delegates and two former governors.  That helps, but whether it garners delegates for the unassembled statewide convention on May 8 is an open question.

David Kerr is an adjunct professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University and has worked on Capitol Hill and for various federal agencies for many years.  

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