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Why Republicans Fear Conventions

What once was a powerful tool for the political establishment has been co-opted by the grassroots.

Rep. Frank Wolf's retirement fueled a behind-the-scenes battle over how the Virginia Republican's successor is nominated.(RICHARD A. BLOOM)

photo of Scott Bland
January 24, 2014

Virginia state Sen. Dick Black is no stranger to controversy. He said polygamy was "more natural" than homosexuality and questioned a movement to allow prosecution of spousal rape. But he has a loyal following among social conservatives in his district, thanks partly to his unremitting opposition to abortion.

That's why Black had a chance to win the Republican nomination to run in Virginia's 10th Congressional District, and that's why some Republicans breathed a sigh of relief when he dropped out of the race Wednesday. After Rep. Frank Wolf's retirement, district Republicans were considering using a convention to nominate his successor on the ballot, exactly the type of scenario where an ultraconservative like Black could triumph, potentially endangering GOP chances at keeping the seat.

The hand-wringing highlighted a slow political evolution: The grassroots have learned to stop worrying and love conventions. The nominating systems once preferred (and controlled) by party bosses now prompt fear among many Republican bigwigs from state to state.


And while establishment Republicans might not have to worry about Wolf's seat any more (the local party chose Thursday to use a "firehouse primary" nominating method), the prospect of conventions in Iowa's Senate race and one battleground congressional district have alarmed some Hawkeye State Republicans there for months. If no candidate gets to 35 percent in the Iowa primaries, the task of nominating a November standard-bearer there would transfer to convention delegates.

Virginia Republicans' 2013 convention, where heavy turnout among religious conservatives helped nominate unelectable lieutenant governor candidate E.W. Jackson, is the most recent example of an anti-establishment GOP convention triumph, but it is one in a string.

In 2010, Utah delegates turfed out Republican Sen. Bob Bennett; two years before, then-Rep. Chris Cannon barely made it out of the GOP convention before losing the resulting primary to Jason Chaffetz. And in Iowa and several other caucus states in 2012, libertarian-minded delegates for Ron Paul did a better job of sticking with the long convention process than others, and Paul ended up winning a majority of Iowa's Republican presidential delegates months after finishing third the night of its high-profile caucuses.

There are no straight lines in the evolution of some GOP conventions from proverbial smoke-filled back rooms, but University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato highlights a few turning points in Virginia's evolution. When Oliver North captured the GOP Senate nomination in 1994, he had many running the state's party arrayed against him—GOP Sen. John Warner actually endorsed a Republican-turned-independent candidate in the general election.

"North was the one person who could have lost to [Sen.] Chuck Robb in the general," Sabato said. "So that convention pushed some elements of the Republican Party to consider primaries again" after earlier dalliances.

"But in the first decade of this century, that's when the right really asserted itself and started to take over the machinery of the party" like conventions, Sabato continued, highlighted by former Gov. Jim Gilmore nearly losing the GOP Senate nomination to firebrand conservative state Del. Bob Marshall in a rowdy 2008 convention. "It's a machinery designed for people who live and breathe politics, and on the GOP side that means right-wing conservative activists," Sabato said.

Conventions have sometimes shifted against the GOP establishment in recent years because participating in them takes real effort. Access isn't difficult in the abstract—in Virginia, it basically comes down to filling out a form, according to 10th District GOP Chairman John Whitbeck Jr.—but committing to it takes real commitment.

"For a lot of voters, it's a question of, do you really want to give up four Saturdays to do all this?" said Craig Robinson, the former political director of the Iowa GOP.

That's left some establishment Republicans plotting everything from tactical changes to blowing up the system to retake control. In Iowa, Gov. Terry Branstad is trying to help friendly Republicans retake the system, using his political operation to urge higher turnout in this week's midterm party caucuses. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, adopted a similar strategy for his 2012 reelection. After watching his longtime colleague Bennett fall two years earlier, Hatch's campaign poured time and money into stacking the state's convention with friendly faces

Some politically active Utah Republicans, along with some Democrats, are looking to take things a step further in 2014 with a ballot initiative outlawing the state's longtime caucus-convention system and replacing it with a primary. The initiative supporters' initial concern was Utah's falling levels of voter participation, but the power of a relative few activists over the state's elected officials is also an issue.

"If the delegates don't reflect the common view of the population, then you'll get skewed views in the elected officials they nominate," said Rich McKeown, the "Count My Vote" effort's executive chairman. McKeown, who was former GOP Gov. Mike Leavitt's longtime chief of staff, noted that Utah's convention delegates skew older and far more male than the population, as well as away from new state residents, leaving large swathes of the growing population out of the main nominating process.

And in Virginia, the question of turning to conventions instead of primaries is sparking deep thinking and suspicions among Republicans there. A new bill outlawing nominating processes that exclude military participation, as in-person caucuses and conventions can, is currently in the Virginia Legislature. Some conservatives see it as a ruse to sap their power. It may not matter in the 10th Congressional District this year, but the evolution of convention control from bosses to agitators remains a trend to watch there and in a few other states.

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