Lessons Learned: The Strategy and Rationale Behind the 2021 Convention and Why It Worked - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Lessons Learned: The Strategy and Rationale Behind the 2021 Convention and Why It Worked

In late 2020, the Republican Party of Virginia’s State Central Committee voted to nominate its 2021 statewide nominees by convention. Because of the pandemic, the party settled on a drive-thru unassembled convention at 39 sites across Virginia.

Although the decision was controversial, the results speak for themselves: a powerful ticket that led to a statewide sweep and historic firsts for the Commonwealth.

There are important lessons for the national Republican Party and state parties to learn from the Virginia GOP’s 2021 nomination process.

The prime directive of a nomination process is to nominate the most competitive ticket for the general election. All else is secondary. And one of the highest responsibilities of a state Republican party is to pick the method of nomination most likely to produce the most competitive ticket.

That is why I was one of the committee members who pushed to hold a convention and proposed using ranked-choice voting to choose our 2021 statewide nominees.

I believe the decision to nominate by convention was a strategic masterstroke that laid the foundation for Virginia Republicans’ statewide victory. Speaking only for myself, let me explain why I supported a convention.

First, the convention efficiently reconciled the pro-Trump and Trump-skeptical wings of the Republican Party in a nomination contest featuring seven gubernatorial candidates from across the Republican spectrum. In a state like Virginia, where Democrats have won statewide elections for a decade, both wings of the party are essential to victory. A primary that turned into a “who is the most Trump-like candidate” would have lost the Trump-skeptical voters, and a primary that produced a Trump-skeptical general election candidate would have struggled with Trump-supporting Republicans. We couldn’t afford to lose either group.

By using ranked-choice voting, we ensured our nominees represented the broad consensus of Republicans. It prevented candidates firmly representing only one wing from winning the nomination. With seven candidates running for governor, such a candidate certainly could have won a primary with a small plurality. But under ranked-choice voting, delegates ranked their choices from among all the candidates in order. Ballots were counted over several rounds, with the lowest vote-getters dropping out and their voters’ second-choice votes counted. This continued until Glenn Youngkin broke 50 percent to win the nomination for governor and likewise for the nominations of Winsome Sears for lieutenant governor and Jason Miyares for attorney general.

We also lifted the usual caps on the number of convention delegates and allowed any Virginia Republican who filed to be a delegate by a set deadline to serve as a convention delegate. In the end, over 53,000 Republicans filed to be delegates and over 30,000 voted in what may have been the largest state convention in American political history. Our convention maximized Republican participation, ensuring the nominees represented the consensus of the informed Republican grassroots.

Republicans who did not get their first-choice candidates still generally got their second- or third-choice candidates. It was therefore easy for the party to coalesce quickly around our nominees.

Second, the convention nomination process denied the Democrats their main general election argument, and, as we soon learned, they had no Plan B. It was obvious to us that the Democrats’ general election campaign would singularly focus on tying whoever Republicans nominated to Donald Trump. In a primary, we likely would have had candidates running campaigns based on their closeness to Trump and attacking other candidates as “not Trump enough.” Waging a primary campaign like that in public would have written Democrats’ general election ads for them. Why do that?

Instead, our nomination process did not create fodder for the “[Republican nominee] equals Trump” campaign Democrats were desperate to wage. When the time came for the general election, the Democrats turned to their “[Republican nominee] equals Trump” cupboard and found … nothing.

That didn’t stop Terry McAuliffe from running a “Youngkin equals Trump” campaign. When all you have is a hammer, every problem is a nail. But instead of being effective, McAuliffe’s desperate attempts to tie Youngkin to Trump became a punchline.

Third, a lesson I’ve learned in my professional career is that when enveloped by chaos and hysteria, the best way to make a decision is to retreat to a quiet place and consider the question carefully and thoughtfully outside the cacophony of punditry and glare of klieg lights.

The events of January 6 reinforced my belief that a convention was best for the Virginia GOP’s nomination process. After January 6, the national media was in an uproar and unrelentingly hostile to Republicans. A primary campaign conducted in that media environment would undoubtedly present Republican candidates in the worst possible light to the entire Virginia electorate.

In that environment, the best approach to nominating statewide candidates was to shut the microphone off. Don’t force our candidates to interact with a vicious media prepared to force sound bites out of them on issues that have little relevance to the coming Virginia election but could be dealbreakers with the suburban electorates in Northern Virginia and Richmond.

Instead of refracting our nomination process through a white-hot media circus designed to trip up Republicans, force them off message, and make them unelectable, the convention process required our candidates to speak directly to Republican activists, experienced individuals who follow the party, knew what it needed in its candidates, and had the party’s best interests at heart. The campaign was held in local committee meetings, living rooms, and diners across Virginia instead of on the airwaves. Candidates spoke directly to thoughtful Republican voters rather than reporters prepared to twist every word.

The media surely would have seized on the most extreme comments by candidates during a primary to define and disqualify the Republican Party as a whole and, by extension, whoever the party ended up nominating. Our nominees, whoever they were, would be tarred with the statements most unpalatable to the critical suburban electorates in Northern Virginia and Richmond. They would be like batters coming to the plate with two strikes.

Once the convention was complete, the statewide nominees had the opportunity to define themselves with the general electorate. Much has been made of Glenn Youngkin defining himself as his own man in the general election. In my view, the convention process positioned him to do that because he had not spent the preceding six months being defined by his nomination opponents and the national media to a wide audience; his and the other candidates’ nomination campaigns quietly focused only on the active Republican grassroots. Consequently, when the general election began, Youngkin, Sears, and Miyares were perfectly positioned to define themselves to the broader electorate, set the terms of the debate, and speak about the issues important to them without any baggage from a messy public nomination process.

Fourth, we prevented Democratic mischief from skewing our nomination contest. Outside Democratic organizations have shown themselves quite willing to interfere in Republican nomination contests. I have not forgotten how Democrats promoted Todd Akin in the 2012 Missouri Republican primary, believing he would be incumbent Sen. Clare McCaskill’s weakest opponent. Nor have I forgotten McCaskill’s obnoxious, gloating 2015 Politico article: “How I Helped Todd Akin Win – So I Could Beat Him Later”.

I’d be damned if we let the Democrats do that to Virginia Republicans in 2021. And because Virginia does not register voters by party, Democrats not only could have surreptitiously influenced Republican primary voters, they also could have voted in a Republican primary for the Republican candidate they preferred. I’m certain some Democrats would have done that given Terry McAuliffe’s running away with the Democrats’ nomination.

With the election past, it is clear the convention worked precisely as intended. It led to an incredibly strong ticket, including a Black lieutenant governor nominee, Sears, and Hispanic attorney general nominee, Miyares. The GOP carried no public baggage from the nomination contest into the general election. Our statewide candidates promptly defined themselves in ways that appealed to both the suburban and rural electorates following the convention. And Democrats’ incessant attempts to disqualify the GOP ticket in the voter-rich suburbs of Northern Virginia and Richmond by tying it to Donald Trump and January 6 failed miserably.

It’s worth looking at the Democrats to understand just how successful the Virginia GOP’s strategy was. Virginia Democrats’ primary nominated a vulnerable ticket with substantial weaknesses. Terry McAuliffe defeated two younger up-and-coming Black elected officials, state Sen. Jennifer McClellan and Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy. Mark Herring, the two-term incumbent attorney general, defeated another Democratic rising star, Delegate Jay Jones, also Black. Neither McAuliffe nor Herring are particularly inspirational. McAuliffe was closely tied to Ralph Northam and his yearbook photo scandal. Herring only barely hung onto his job after his own blackface scandal. But McAuliffe’s and Herring’s money and entrenchment in the Democratic establishment allowed them to prevail over more dynamic and, in my view, more competitive candidates. I’d wager more than a few Virginia Republicans breathed a sigh of relief when the Democrats didn’t nominate Carroll Foy, McClellan, or Jones.

We knew the Virginia GOP was taking a risk by nominating by convention. And we knew we would lose the collateral benefits of a primary, including party identification and broader participation in a primary. But we trusted the convention delegates to think carefully about what was in the best interests of the Republican Party of Virginia. And we trusted the ranked-choice process to produce a consensus ticket the entire party could enthusiastically support. Maintaining the collateral benefits of a primary was of no value if the primary process produced weak nominees or a weakened ticket.

For me, the lesson is that the method of nomination can make a real difference in election outcomes. And the party should determine its method of nomination based on what method will produce the most competitive ticket in the prevailing political environment. It could be a primary. It could be a convention. State parties should consider the question on a case-by-case basis in a thoughtful and strategic manner.

Fortune favors the bold. And the Republican Party of Virginia’s decision to hold a nominating convention using ranked-choice voting was the bold step that formed the foundation of its statewide triumph and, perhaps, provides a blueprint for other state parties to navigate the Republican Party’s future.

Michael Ginsberg is the 11th District State Central Committee representative for the Republican Party of Virginia. 

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