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
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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.

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