Hanover County Supervisor Scott Wyatt declared himself the GOP nominee in the 97th House District on Saturday after he overwhelmingly prevailed in the voting of more than 450 delegates gathered at Atlee High School.
The nomination remains in dispute however, as Jack Wilson, chairman of the state Republican Party, said Saturday’s event in Mechanicsville was not a nominating convention but a Wyatt rally.
Wilson this week recognized Wednesday’s vote by a GOP district committee to cancel the event by removing the call for convention from the state GOP’s website.
Del. Chris Peace, R-Hanover, and his supporters boycotted Saturday’s event that drew to the Atlee gym hundreds of delegates who had taken part in mass meetings in Hanover, King William and New Kent counties. Not a sticker or sign supporting Peace was in sight among a sea of Wyatt signs.
Following the announcement of the weighted vote tally, Wyatt said: “I’m truly honored and very humbled that I will represent the citizens of the 97th District as their Republican nominee.”
As for next steps, Wyatt said: “I plan to start campaigning for this November.”
In a written statement he added: “Today we begin to share our message of limited government with the voters of King William, New Kent and Hanover.” He said his message to Peace backers who attended the convention is: “I hope to earn your support.”
Peace tweeted Saturday afternoon: “Don’t give up the ship,” adding that his campaign “will continue to engage with voters across the 97th District and earn the legitimate Republican nomination on June 1st in the official nominating process.”
Peace had reiterated to his supporters Friday night on Facebook that the convention had been canceled and suggested that they skip the proceedings at Atlee.
“We encourage all Peace supporters to enjoy quality time with your families this weekend,” he wrote, adding: “Colonial Downs is also open again!”
Nearly 1,700 delegates and alternates had been elected at the mass meetings in Hanover, King William and New Kent and 460 votes were cast at Atlee on Saturday.
Tom Miller, the chairman of the legislative district committee in the 97th, presided at Saturday’s meeting. Like a number of Wyatt supporters interviewed at Atlee, he said it was wrong of the local committee to vote to scrap the convention three days before the event. Wednesday’s vote had occurred after Miller, a nonvoting member of the panel, had banged his gavel, said the meeting was adjourned and left.
“The democratic process says that you don’t close the polling place at noon because your candidate is losing,” Miller said to applause from the assembled delegates.
Miller held up a form from the State Board of Elections. He said he planned to fill in the name of the candidate who prevailed in Saturday’s voting and that he would hand-deliver it to state elections officials Monday.
“After that I can’t promise you anything,” Miller told the crowd.
Any appeal lodged in the 97th District dispute would first go to the GOP committee for the 1st Congressional District. That committee would have to provide seven days of notice before it could meet to take up the issue. Any decision by that body could be appealed to the State Central Committee, the state party’s governing body.
Andrew Smith of Mechanicsville, an IT director and a Wyatt delegate, said at Atlee that he did not see any reason to cancel the convention after the mass meetings in the three counties.
“My hope is that the Republican Party of Virginia will honor the convention as it originally stood,” he said. He added: “If there is a canvass or a firehouse primary, I will be there to vote for that, as well.”
Carter Garnett of Aylett, an alternate from the King William mass meeting, noted that Peace had taken part in the mass meetings at the county level.
“He was in the game from Day One, and now he’s pretty much picking up his ball in the middle of the game and running home because he apparently doesn’t perceive a good outcome for him,” said Garnett, branch manager for a business that distributes fasteners such as nuts and bolts used in the construction industry.
“If he’s going to tuck his tail and quit in the middle of the game, then it’s all the more reason not to support him.”
The 97th House District is likely to remain in Republican hands regardless of which candidate winds up on the general election ballot.
But the dispute over the nomination method has pitted Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, against House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, as each works to preserve the GOP’s two-seat edge in his chamber in the fall elections.
Norment argued Friday that the convention should go forward, saying that in issuing a statement that Saturday’s gathering was “anything but a duly-called Convention, Chairman Wilson has overstepped his authority and usurped the powers reserved for the State Central Committee.”
On Twitter, Cox backed the state GOP chairman, a former chairman of the 4th District GOP.
“Having worked with Jack for the past 25 years, I know he is a man of integrity and sound decision-making,” Cox tweeted Friday night. “He deserves nothing but our full confidence and support between now and November. It’s crucial that all Republicans focus on holding our majorities in the General Assembly.”
Norment was not present Saturday at Atlee because of a family obligation out of town. Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, said in his keynote address that Norment was not alone in the Senate GOP caucus in wanting the convention to go forward.
“Holding this convention is keeping faith with the voters, not just in the 97th District but across the commonwealth of Virginia,” Suetterlein said. “The unnecessary controversy leading up to this convention begs one question: Whose party is this?”
Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, also addressed the crowd and urged delegates to focus on the fall elections once the dispute is resolved.
“When each of you leave here today, please make sure that whatever your feelings are that you focus on November,” said McDougle, noting that the General Assembly contests “will set the direction for the commonwealth of Virginia.”