In what would have been inconceivable at any time in recent memory, Virginia’s 7th District Republican Committee voted to nominate the district’s GOP candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives via a party run convention instead of a primary. The committee met in Goochland on Saturday, and scheduled the convention for May.
The committee is composed primarily of local GOP chairmen in the district. Also in attendance were hundreds of supporters of Rep. Dave Brat who had come to cheer on the popular freshman congressman, and a contingent 30 to 40 College Republicans, who had just wrapped up their annual convention in nearby Richmond. (Congrats to new College Republican Federation of Virginia Chairman Benjamin Dessart!)
For those not familiar with congressional district committee functions within the Virginia GOP, such meetings are usually attended by no more than a handful of members of the public. The interest in this particular meeting, however, was significantly elevated by the efforts of a faction in the district still upset at Eric Cantor’s having lost the 2014 primary to Brat. That faction had aimed to have a primary (either party-run or state-run) to choose the district’s nominee, in the hopes of attracting so-called “establishment” money in their effort to oust Brat and his conservative allies in the party.
Brat himself was on hand to make clear his preference for a convention. Arriving to sustained applause and cheering from the crowd, Brat delivered an impassioned speech about how, given the uncertainty surrounding Congressional redistricting and how it is possible that a final nominee might not be determined until late summer after the courts settle on the final district lines, only a convention would put the eventual nominee in a place necessary to secure victory.
The committee’s choice of a convention is largely a function of vacancies in two State Central Committee seats from the 7th created by imposition of new Congressional district lines in the recent action by a federal district court. The two seats on the committee held by people who suddenly found themselves living in a different district had to be filled by the committee yesterday.
When the time came for a vote, the pro-Brat and pro-primary sides were evenly split. A motion by Chesterfield GOP Chairman Donald Williams to vote on the vacancies using a secret ballot failed on an 8-to-8 tie, as did a subsequent vote on a motion by Spotsylvania GOP Chairman David Ross to conduct the election via roll call vote. Consequently, the vote was done with a show of hands, and longtime stalwart conservative activist Nancy Smith was elected. Smith’s vote added to the narrow pro-Brat majority that then elected Tea Party workhorse Mark Hile to the final vacant position.
With a solid majority in the pro-Brat camp, the committee then proceeded to vote on the method of nomination. Seeing the writing on the wall, most of the folks who would have preferred a primary ended up joining in a show of unity by voting for the convention preferred by Brat, which passed with a nearly unanimous vote.
Although the Brat-friendly crowd cheered wildly at the results, enthusiasm on this topic must be tempered by the knowledge that this outcome may be fleeting. The U.S. Supreme Court is likely to rule any day now on the GOP Congressional delegation’s request for a stay of the lower court’s order giving immediate effect to the new district lines until at least such time as the high court has a chance to rule on their appeal on the merits of underlying case.
Should the Supreme Court grant a stay (which seems more likely than not at this point), that would probably mean immediately reverting to the old lines for this year’s intra-party and Congressional nomination processes. Under the old lines, the committee was composed of a majority who favored a primary. This is why, to the confusion of some in the crowd, Donald Williams gave notice at the end of the meeting of his intention to bring the method of nomination back before the committee at its next meeting, a smart parliamentary safeguard against any moves by the pro-Brat chairman, Fred Gruber, to rule such a motion out of order.
For the moment, though, congratulations to Rep. Brat, Fred Gruber, Ben Slone, Nancy Smith, Mark (and Anita) Hile, and the entire team for a job well done!
Full Disclosure: At the request of chairman Gruber, I served as parliamentarian during Saturday’s meeting.