FALLS CHURCH, Va. (AP) — Virginia Republicans have opted to hold an in-person convention at Liberty University in May to choose their nominee for governor, again rejecting an effort to hold a more inclusive firehouse primary.
Liberty University officials, though, threw some cold water on the idea Wednesday.
Party officials said at a virtual meeting Tuesday night they will make accommodations to ensure their convention does not violate pandemic restrictions against mass gatherings, and that participants could stay in their car and vote.
Opponents of the convention, including gubernatorial candidate Amanda Chase, say it will be impossible to modify the rules to hold a one-site convention, and worry the party's central committee will just step in and choose a nominee on its own.
“So the RPV’s governing board chose a nomination process that is currently illegal under the Governor’s current executive order. We are headed toward 72 members of the SCC choosing our statewide nominees,” Chase said on Twitter on Wednesday morning.
Virginia and New Jersey are the only two states electing governors this year. New Jersey’s Democratic incumbent is heavily favored to win reelection, so political observers across the country are keenly interested in Virginia’s election as a barometer of political sentiment after Democrats won the White House and Congress last year.
Party leaders in Virginia who support the “drive-in convention” at Liberty say it would utilize tens of thousands of parking spaces and would not violate any of the current executive orders banning mass gatherings.
On Wednesday, though, Liberty issued a statement saying that while some preliminary discussions have been held about using off-campus facilities owned by the university, Liberty has not yet reached any agreement and any of its on-campus parking lots and garages would be off limits for a May 8 convention.
“The retail center parking facilities that Liberty would offer through its real estate holding companies were only offered at market rent like that charged other users who rent these kinds of parking lots,” the university said.
On Tuesday night's call, convention supporters acknowledged that they had not locked down any details with Liberty. Convention opponents cited that uncertainty as a major concern.
The party's central committee was badly divided on how to proceed. The vote to switch to a canvass, or firehouse primary, failed on a 34-36 vote with five abstentions. Three former GOP governors — Jim Gilmore, George Allen and Bob McDonnell — had urged the committee to adopt a canvass.
A firehouse primary would let voters cast ballots at locations across the state. Supporters of the canvass say it is burdensome to expect people to drive to Lynchburg to participate in the nomination process.
The convention will also choose nominees for lieutenant governor and attorney general. It will use ranked-choice voting to select a nominee so the winner will have to receive a majority vote.
Candidates have been waiting anxiously for the party to finalize its nomination plans so they can plot successful campaign strategies. Chase, a vocal supporter of former President Donald Trump who is frequently at odds with the party's establishment, had advocated for a primary over a convention, saying she fears a convention is a way for party bosses to ignore the will of grass-roots voters.
She filed a lawsuit seeking to force the part to conduct a primary, but a judge dismissed her case last week.
Republicans have not won a statewide election in Virginia since 2009.
The Republican convention will be May 8. Democrats are choosing their nominees in a June 8 primary election.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Liberty University's comments came Friday, not Wednesday, and had an incorrect reference to the call being Thursday night.