A Republican committee is considering changing its plan for a convention next month to decide the winner of a heated intra-GOP battle for a Hanover County-based House of Delegates seat.
The 97th District Legislative Committee — which decides the nomination process and sets the rules — will hold a special meeting Saturday. The agenda includes a possible discussion on whether the four-person committee should “rescind or amend” its Jan. 19 vote for a convention, raising the extraordinary possibility that the party-run election process could change just one week before the May 4 convention.
Del. Chris Peace, R-Hanover, who prefers a more open primary process, is being challenged from the right by Hanover Supervisor Scott Wyatt, who supports a convention. Wyatt has strongly criticized Peace’s 2018 vote for a state budget that included Medicaid expansion, which Peace has defended as a pragmatic choice that helped ensure fiscal safeguards were included in a policy that seemed inevitable after a string of Democratic electoral victories.
It wasn’t immediately clear Monday whether there is a concerted push by Peace supporters to scrap the convention plan or if the agenda item is more of a placeholder to allow for a big-picture discussion of the rocky nomination process. Both campaigns have leveled accusations of impropriety, rule-bending and smear tactics during a series of county-level mass meetings to select the 1,264 delegates who will be allowed to vote at the convention.
The winner of the GOP nomination battle in the strongly conservative district is likely to be elected to the House in November.
The campaign could turn more contentious this week if Peace allies choose to appeal the April 11 mass meeting in Hanover, which devolved into shouting after the Wyatt faction turned out in force to control the proceedings. The Peace campaign has said it still has not been given access to the final list of Hanover delegates who would cast almost 63 percent of the convention votes.
Thomas A. Miller, the non-voting chairman of the legislative district committee, said he’s tried to stay above the fray and remain neutral. But the suggestion of changing course at Saturday’s meeting, he said, “kinda crossed a line.”
“It will be controversial. It will be loud,” Miller said.
Wyatt was serving as the Hanover representative on the legislative district committee during the Jan. 19 vote. A proxy member filling in for Wyatt voted at the January meeting for a convention. Early this month, Wyatt was removed from the committee and replaced with Mike Reynold, a McGuireWoods lobbyist who supports Peace. Because Hanover is the most populous part of the district — which also includes New Kent County and portions of King William County — the Hanover representative’s vote carries the most weight.
If the committee were to overrule the convention plan, it could choose a party-run firehouse primary, a method that would allow all Republicans in the district to vote at a designated time and place without the strict structure of a convention. State-run primaries will be held June 11.
The meeting agenda includes discussion of several other logistical items for the convention, including the location, security plan, budget, rules and committee assignments.
Asked if he’s concerned the convention plan itself is in jeopardy, Wyatt said: “I guess we’ll find out Saturday.”
“You’d have to talk to them. It’s their meeting. They hold all the cards,” Wyatt said.
Reynold and John Hubbard, the King William representative on the committee, initiated the call for Saturday’s meeting. Reached Monday, neither offered a concrete position on whether the convention vote should be undone.
Via text message, Reynold said he hopes to ensure the district has “a fair process and an efficient nomination” so the Republican candidate is positioned to win in November.
Hubbard said the idea of a major procedural change has been “put out there for consideration,” but he’s not inclined to support it.
“Unless there’s some logistical reason why we can’t pull this off like we had planned, I don’t think it’s a good idea to change course,” said Hubbard, who voted for a primary at the January meeting.
John Findlay, executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia, said the party is monitoring the “highly unprecedented” situation in the district. According to the state party’s initial legal analysis, he said, it appears the convention vote could be reversed. “We are not judging whether or not it’s a good idea or a bad idea,” Findlay said.
Peace said voters’ interests would have been better served with a primary, but he stopped short of calling for the convention to be canceled.
“This convention is not the process I preferred because it limits voter participation,” Peace said. “However since it is the selected process, I’m working to win the nomination on May 4th.”