Home Virginia Politics Should Virginia Democrats Go Convention, Not Primary, in 2013?

Should Virginia Democrats Go Convention, Not Primary, in 2013?


( – promoted by lowkell)

by Paul Goldman

36 years later, will it be Back to the Future for Virginia Democrats, as they decide whether to do away with a primary and return to a convention process for picking their 2013 party ticket?

After liberal Henry Howell shocked the Democratic establishment by winning a seemingly impossible victory in the 1977 gubernatorial primary (he was down 20 points in a poll published the weekend before the voting), many party movers and shakers began arguing for a switch to a convention process.

The move away from a primary – the first time in Democratic party history – caused me to ultimately bring what turned out to be a seminal case under the Voting Rights Act of 1965. I challenged the delegate allocation formula, proving it discriminated against inner city and rural Democrats. The party officials subjected me to the usual personal attacks, then their lawyers weighed in, only to learn that my legal analysis, while unprecedented, was accepted as the correct interpretation of the law. So party leaders cut an unprecedented deal with the DOJ, and agreed to my view of the right general allocation formula.

As luck would have it, four years later, the lawsuit amazingly played a key role in Doug Wilder making history for reasons discussed in Dwayne Yancey’s book When Hell Froze Over.  Of course, that only made them more abusive toward me, as the book points out. Yet ironically, in retrospect, using a convention process probably worked to Wilder’s advantage, all things considered, in terms of his historic breakthrough in 1985, which was strongly opposed by these same party leaders (as Dr. Sabato has pointed out)!  Go figure, right?

I recited the history to underscore this point: process changes can produce unintended consequences; politics is full of surprises.


Still, the reason to change the process in 2013 is not wholly unrelated to 1981. Back then, Lt. Governor Chuck Robb had no opposition for the party’s nomination for Governor. This meant any primary would feature low voter participation levels in any LG or AG race. Robb’s key advisors didn’t want another Howell liberal on the ticket, rather a more suburban friendly, moderate threesome imagewise. So they hand picked Dick Davis and Jerry Baliles to be Robb’s running mates. Dick was a super guy, the nicest man, and not really all that conservative either! He was from Tidewater, and Jerry a super smart lawyer from the Richmond area. With Robb trying to become the first Governor in the modern era from NOVA, it presented a balanced ticket of new faces, not connected to the Howell era.

Dick and Jerry were challenged in the convention process by two guys more identified with the Howell populist approach. But Davis and Baliles prevailed, with the help of Robb’s network and their superior political skills. When the Robb-Davis-Baliles ticket swept the state, the party forget about primaries and stayed with the new convention process, until the 1997 GOP sweep made Democratic leaders try something new, this time going back to the primary.

But it wasn’t until 2009 that Democrats had a gubernatorial primary. The results need no reiteration. Perhaps no Democrat could have been elected statewide that year. But this doesn’t alter a basic fact: Deeds won the primary easily, yet got crushed in the general. Would a convention process have picked a stronger nominee, perhaps one that would not have led the party to such a defeat? There is no way to know for sure. But my gut says Creigh couldn’t have won a convention process.

Personally, I believe primaries are more democratic than a party-run, insider convention process. On the other hand, the incredible cost of a primary, along with the realities of voter participation, caution against being blinded by rose-colored glasses. Accordingly, in terms of 2013, it may be that a convention process is actually the more democratic, given the political landscape where the rubber meets the road.

Indeed, without a battle at the top of the ticket, primary turnout will approach a record low in the modern era. Thus, in a multi-candidate field, a strong regional candidate, with little appeal elsewhere in the state, can win with far less than a majority. A true asset of a convention is that it requires a candidate to put together a majority coalition. Moreover, we have never had tried a convention process in the internet age.

Our new digital politics, at least in theory, seems to offer far more democracy than under previous conventions, while reducing the cost of a campaign, thus encouraging those outside the party inner circle to compete.

This is to say: It may be, upon reflection, an internet-driven Convention process could be an acceptable, even more democratic process as opposed to what is shaping up right now as a very low vote 2013 primary scenario. Moreover, the Davis vs. Baliles convention fight of 1985 was a wide-open battle that could have gone either way, a very competitive and democratic process. The fear that party insiders can control a 2013 convention in the Internet Age is surely even less a risk than 28 years ago.  

So what should it be, Convention or Primary in 2013?

It comes down to the heart vs. the head. I sued in 1981 because the primary process, compared to the change being proposed, was not only fairer, but the change championed violated the rights of the most loyal Democrats. But one has to always realize any process, in the end, is only as useful as the results it produces.

We want a fair, open process in 2013, which gives as many qualified candidates an opportunity to triumph on merit — which in politics includes the ability to ultimately win the general election. It is therefore not merely a philosophical question, but a practical one as well, and time specific too.

What was right in 1977 or 1981 or 2009 is not the end of the discussion, but rather the beginning.

At this point in time, I think an open mind on the question of Primary vs Convention makes the most sense for a sensible Democrat. I lean toward a primary. But I am willing to listen to the arguments for another process, since the right answer is not clear cut to me.


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