The Democratic committee for the 7th Congressional District opted on Sunday for a state-run primary to choose a nominee to go up against GOP Rep. Dave Brat in November.

Advocates for a primary said it would get more people involved in the process, but others who supported a party-controlled caucus feared Republicans would try to vote in a Democratic primary to sabotage it. Meeting in downtown Richmond, the committee at first deadlocked on a 10-10 tie vote.

But committee members had further discussion behind closed doors. In a second vote, they overwhelming opted for a primary, said Abbi Easter, the chair of the Democratic committee for the 7th District. The tally of the second vote was not disclosed, but the committee voted to make it unanimous.

“This is a new day in the 7th Congressional District,” said Marques Jones, chairman of the Henrico County Democratic Committee and a member of the 7th District committee. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to flip a district.”

The district includes parts of Chesterfield and Henrico counties and traditionally favors Republicans, but Democrats sense opportunity this year with an unpopular Republican president in the White House, a scenario that helped Democrats sweep last year’s statewide offices and gain 15 seats in the state House.

Four Democrats are in the hunt for their party’s nomination to face Brat, who is seeking a third term. Democratic voters on June 12 will choose between Helen Alli, a community activist; Diane Fraser, founder of a civic group called Hoos for Change; Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA officer; and Dan Ward, an airline pilot and former Marine colonel.

Several members of the 20-member committee said they worried that if the committee chose a primary, a “ringer” candidate would jump in the race to sabotage the Democrats and would defeat all four of their candidates and become the nominee.

Ward strongly favored a primary and wrote a letter to members of the committee in November.

Among his arguments was that a competitive Democratic primary would increase the chances of beating Brat.

In the governor’s race last year, some Democrats feared that Tom Perriello’s entry into the Democratic primary against establishment favorite Ralph Northam would weaken the party and deplete Northam’s financial edge.

But the primary last year led to news coverage and heavy focus on the Democrats, and Northam went on to beat Ed Gillespie by nine points in the general election after easily defeating Perriello.

After Sunday’s tie vote, the committee opted to vote again.

First, they voted to close the meeting to the public, which included candidates Alli and Fraser and representatives of the Spanberger and Ward campaigns, so they could speak more freely. Democratic Party rules say the public is allowed to attend and observe the meeting.

But Shyam Raman, the political director for the Democratic Party of Virginia, said the closure was permitted under Robert’s Rules of Order.

In Northern Virginia, Democrats already chose a primary to pick a nominee to challenge GOP U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock in the 10th District.

Last week, Democrats in District 2 chose a primary to pick a nominee to challenge Republican Rep. Scott Taylor.

In the 5th District, Democrats chose a party-run caucus to pick a nominee against GOP Rep. Tom Garrett.

pwilson@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6061

Twitter: @patrickmwilson

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