It was an unforgettable moment: ~14,000 Republicans rose from their seats to cheer their nominee for Governor, George Allen. The energy among the convention goers was palpable. Allen reminded us of a certain Governor of California, turned favorite President and many of us told him so. He’d laugh with a smidgen of embarrassment and say how honored he was by the comparison. We hoped that he could do for Virginia what Reagan did for America, uniting social and fiscal conservatives and appealing to independents from the northern part of our Commonwealth as well as to blue collar southern Virginia Democrats.
I was just eleven years old in 1993, when I attended my first political convention. Although I’d been listening to political talk radio and reading newspapers compulsively for four years already, it was my first year of doing anything political, and I loved it. Along with the delegates attending, I left that convention energized, hopeful, and believing that, if we worked together, Virginia Republicans could have a tremendous year.
Under George Allen’s leadership, Republicans did indeed have a banner year in ’93. Allen and Gilmore became the first Republicans to hold the Governorship and the Attorney General’s office in twelve years. We got within five seats of a majority in the state Senate and left the Democrats with a thin four seat majority in the House. Since I’d come to that convention because of Mike Farris, I was disappointed that he lost in November, but there were a few recognizable upsides to Mary Sue Terry being the Democrat’s statewide standard-bearer…
So, why the trip down memory lane?
As a newly elected member of the RPV’s state central committee, I’ve received notice that we will be considering whether to nominate our 2013 candidates in a convention, rather than by the state-run primary chosen by the state central committee members last year.
It seems there is a never ending intra-party discussion about the merits of conventions vs primaries among Virginia Republicans, and this year is no different. Republicans of goodwill differ on this question and I respect my friends and colleagues to prefer primaries to conventions. As we engage this discussion, I hope we can do so without impugning each others motives, or commitment to our Party and our principles.
When I approach the discussion, I begin by asking three questions:
1 – What approach best cultivates the virtues of citizenship among participants and tends toward the clearest presentation of Republican ideas in the general election?
2 – What best stewards the resources of the Republican Party?
3 – What generally leads to the most favorable outcomes for the Republican Party?
The principles underlying these questions, and the answers I have observed to them, inform the way I will approach my first state central committee meeting, later this month.
The first question is foundational to me. Fewer and fewer Americans, particularly in my generation, seem to understand the great privilege of American citizenship. Few comprehend what it means to actively and specifically care about how civic decisions impact them, their community, their state and their country. Few actually understand the principles of federalism, or why it matters if we all have a level of personal connection to those who represent us.
The convention process has a unique capacity for inculcating the virtues of citizenship in active Republicans. A delegate to a convention is not the same as a primary voter. A delegate is elected by and represents his or her fellow Republicans at the nominating convention. He or she draws friends and family members and neighbors and co-religionists into the political process, explaining the process along the way, and resulting in more informed citizens at multiple levels of participation. Those who attend the conventions, particularly well run conventions, usually leave with a level of energy and support and commitment to the nominee that does not exist after a primary – they leave better informed, and more active citizens, as I did after my first convention. Further, because we do not register voters by party in Virginia, a primary allows Democrats to participate in choosing our nominee. A convention, where the nominee is chosen by informed and involved party activists, also tends to produce candidates who are more thoroughly committed to the party’s principles. These candidates are more prepared to persuade voters of why Republican ideas are best for our Commonwealth. Generally speaking, this leads to a higher contrast between our party’s nominee and the Democrat nominee. Overall, voters and activists tend to be more engaged when there is a higher contrast between the candidates, than when they can’t see much difference between them.
The second question invites us to consider how best to steward our resources as a party. A well run convention tends to be a net benefit to the party, both financially and in terms of human resources: an energized activist base. It is also worth some consideration that a convention does not drain general taxpayer resources on party business.
The third question examines the historical outcomes of our nominating processes. And the bottom line here is that since we have been competitive as a party, successful Virginia gubernatorial candidates have generally been nominated in a convention.
Here is the data, since reconstruction, when we had a Republican candidate who was actually elected Governor:
R WIN – Linwood Holton in 1969 – CONVENTION
R WIN – Mills Godwin in 1973 – CONVENTION
R WIN – John Dalton in 1977 – CONVENTION
R WIN – George Allen in 1993 – CONVENTION
R WIN – Jim Gilmore in 1997 – PRIMARY (unopposed)
R WIN – Bob McDonnell in 2009 – CONVENTION
If we say that Republicans began to be competitive in Virginia with Linwood Holton’s win, then we’ve won 5 of 8 times we’ve nominated our gubernatorial candidate via convention. When we’ve held a competitive primary in this time frame, we’ve lost three out of three times. While Governor Gilmore was nominated in a primary, he was not opposed.
There are several possible reasons why conventions tend to work better for Virginia Republicans. Perhaps we bloody each other less in the public eye when our potential nominees travel the state in search of delegate votes than when they blanket the airwaves with negative ads. Perhaps this leads to our candidates being in better control of their messaging coming out of a convention, than a primary. Perhaps the differences in the way a convention contest and a primary campaign are conducted leads to our nominee having built a deeper base of activist support, which is necessary to ensure an energized and committed grassroots volunteer base in the general election. Perhaps some of our nominees are able to spend their funds more sparingly during a convention and so bring a larger warchest into the general election.
Whatever the reason, a win is a WIN, and I like to win.