HARRISONBURG — State Del. Ben Cline won the Republican nomination Saturday to seek the seat of U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-6th, surviving a challenge from hard-right candidate Cynthia Dunbar at a party convention held at James Madison University.
Cline, R-Rockbridge, will enter the general-election race as the presumptive favorite in the Republican-leaning 6th District, which covers much of western Virginia, stretching from the Shenandoah Valley to Lynchburg and Roanoke.
More than 2,200 voting delegates gathered in JMU’s Convocation Center for a day of party business capped by the selection of a nominee to succeed Goodlatte, who’s retiring after holding the seat for 25 years.
Cline won 52 percent of the vote on the first ballot, to Dunbar’s 39 percent, bringing the convention to a close about seven hours after it began.
Cline and Dunbar, the top two contenders in an eight-candidate field, both pitched themselves as supporters of President Donald Trump. But the contest exposed deep divides among the party’s base by pitting a seasoned conservative legislator against a combative outsider who denounced “career politicians.”
After the result was announced, Dunbar took the stage and moved to nominate Cline by acclamation, ending the day on a note of unity.
Cline got a boost early in the afternoon when another candidate, Rockingham County Circuit Court Clerk Chaz W. Haywood, withdrew and urged his supporters to back Cline. Trailing far behind in the voting were the remaining candidates — Douglas D. Wright, Elliot Pope, Michael Desjadon, Eduardo Justo and Kathryn McDaniel Lewis.
Cline, a prosecutor and former Goodlatte aide who has served in the General Assembly for 15 years, struck an anti-establishment tone in his convention speech, urging the crowd to send a message to “evil advocates of socialism” and “sanctimonious central planners in Washington.” Stressing that he wouldn’t hesitate to stand up to leaders of his own party, Cline promised to help Trump build the border wall and said he’d work to defund sanctuary cities and prioritize funding for veterans above Planned Parenthood and NPR.
“If liberals have a problem with it, they can run and find a safe space to hide in,” Cline said.
Dunbar, a lawyer and former Liberty University professor who represents Virginia on the Republican National Committee, delivered a raucous speech of her own, saying she carries the U.S. Constitution “in her heart” and calling for an end to abortion. Republican voters, she said, shouldn’t be surprised that after electing Trump and a Republican-controlled Congress, the result is a $1.3 trillion spending bill that “looks like it was written and passed by Democrats.”
“And everybody’s scratching their head, saying we don’t understand, we want change,” Dunbar said. “Well I can tell you how we get change. We stop electing career politicians.”
Democrats will choose their 6th District nominee in a primary June 12 from a field of four candidates: Jennifer Lewis, Charlotte Moore, Peter Volosin and Sergio Coppola.
Some Republican observers feared a Dunbar win Saturday could have given Democrats an opening to flip what should be a safe GOP district.
The weeks leading up to the convention were marked by vicious party infighting over rules and fairness, with Cline and several other candidates accusing Scott Sayre, the 6th District Republican Committee chairman, of trying to rig the convention for Dunbar. Those concerns intensified when it was revealed that Dunbar was on the payroll of a Sayre-owned company last summer shortly before she announced her campaign.
Sayre and Dunbar denied the accusations of impropriety, calling them part of a smear campaign being waged by the party establishment.
The concerns about how the convention would be run seemed to dissipate Saturday when the delegates elected Jack Wilson, a Chesterfield County lawyer, to serve as temporary chairman. Cline and several other candidates had already announced their support for Wilson, saying he would restore a sense of fair play to the day’s proceedings.
Dunbar’s supporters had favored longtime GOP activist Steve Albertson of Stafford County.
The convention elected a temporary chairman because Sayre was facing a challenger of his own. Jennifer Brown, an attorney from Harrisonburg, defeated Sayre to become the new district chair.
Goodlatte attended the convention, shaking hands with well-wishers and posing for photos as he made the rounds. Goodlatte stayed neutral ahead of the convention, partly because both Cline and Haywood used to work for him and he didn’t want to choose between two former aides.
“I feel like we’re going to nominate a very good candidate who’s going to win the general election and carry on the Main Street, conservative values that I’ve tried to represent,” Goodlatte said in an interview before the vote. “Which I think is the overwhelming majority view of the people in this district.”
Asked if he planned to endorse the eventual nominee, Goodlatte said: “If they want my help, they’ll have it.”
Goodlatte congratulated Cline on the convention floor after his victory.
Speaking to reporters, Cline said he was eager to get to Washington to help pass Trump’s agenda. But he said he first has to face the Democrats in the fall.
“Their agenda is a tired agenda of more government, more taxes, more control over people’s lives,” Cline said. “And that is not what the 6th District voters want from their elected congressman.”