Why Republicans Fear Conventions

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

National Journal
Scott Bland
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
Scott Bland
Jan. 24, 2014, midnight

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.

What We're Following See More »
WHITE HOUSE BLOCKING DOC REQUEST
Michael Flynn Remains A Russian-Sized Problem
52 minutes ago
BREAKING

The Michael Flynn story is not going away for the White House as it tries to refocus its attention. The White House has denied requests from the House Oversight Committee for information and documents regarding payments that the former nationals security adviser received from Russian state television station RT and Russian firms. House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz and ranking members Elijah Cummings also said that Flynn failed to report these payments on his security clearance application. White House legislative director Marc Short argued that the documents request are either not in the possession of the White House or contain sensitive information he believes are not applicable to the committee's stated investigation.

Source:
SENATE JUDICIARY HEARING
Sally Yates to Testify on May 8
1 hours ago
THE LATEST
MESSAGE TO PUTIN
U.S. To Conduct Exercises In Estonia
2 hours ago
THE DETAILS

The U.S. deployed "F-35 joint strike fighters" to Estonia on Tuesday. The "jets will stay in Estonia for several weeks and will be a part of training flights with U.S. and other NATO air forces." The move comes at a time of high tension between the U.S. and Estonia's neighbor, Russia. The two nations have been at odds over a number of issues recently, most of all being Vladimir Putin's support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in light of Assad's chemical weapons attack on his own people in the midst of a civil war.

Source:
BIPARTISAN SUPPORT YIELDS 87 VOTES IN FAVOR
Senate OKs Perdue as Agriculture Secretary
4 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

It took long enough, but the Trump administration finally includes an Agriculture secretary. "The Senate easily approved Sonny Perdue on Monday" by a count of 87-11. Perdue enjoyed the support of Democrats like Delaware's Chris Coons and Wisconsin's Tammy Baldwin, both of whom spoke in his favor.

Source:
ANOTHER ETHICAL THICKET
State Department Highlights Mar-a-Lago in Advertisement
4 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"A media arm of the State Department is using federal resources to promote President Donald Trump’s private Florida golf club, fueling scrutiny of the nexus between the president’s official duties and his personal financial interests." On April 4, "Share America, the State Department’s social media-friendly news website, paid homage to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club ... hailing the president’s use of 'the winter White House, as Share America dubbed it, to host world leaders."

Source:
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login