Home 2019 Elections Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on a VA GOP Convention

Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on a VA GOP Convention


( – promoted by lowkell)

by Paul Goldman

It appears to be an article of faith that Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli would be the biggest beneficiary – and Lt. Governor Bill Bolling the biggest loser – should the Virginia GOP reverse course and junk their 2013 primary for the more typical convention process. But is this true?

Let’s start from a novel point of view: the purpose of running for Governor is to actually win the office. To be sure, this requires getting the GOP nomination. But equally important, or one would presume, is winning the nomination in such a way as to maximize your chances of being elected Governor.

When viewed with this dual purpose, the conventional wisdom might not be as wise as the gurus, pundits, reporters and experts suggest.

In 2001, the VA GOP held a nomination process between the darling of the party’s anti-abortion forces (Attorney General Mark Earley), and the “moderate” Republican (Lt. Governor John Hager). The conservative Mr. Earley won easily. But in so doing, he actually diminished his chances of winning the governorship. Why? Since the process was held mostly out of public view, it made it a lot easier for many of Hager’s top backers to back Mark Warner.

There is no reason to assume Mr. Earley would have been anything but the solid favorite in heads-up primary contest with Mr. Hager. In such a contest, each side has to publicly promise to back the other, or forfeit any chance of success. Due to this public stance, post-primary unity is far easier to assure, although admittedly it is often only a veneer. But perception is the coin of the realm in politics.

Fast forward to 2013. By any reasonable analysis, Mr. Cuccinelli is a far stronger intra-party candidate for a gubernatorial nomination than was Mr. Earley, either in a nomination or convention process. As for Lt. Governor Bolling, he is admittedly far stronger than Mr. Hager under any circumstances.

But on a net, net basis, Cuccinelli  is stronger against Bolling than Earley was against Hager even though Bolling greatly outshines Hager.

So this raises the question: What benefits a candidate more, a primary win or a convention win?

In the modern era of Virginia politics, there have been three contested gubernatorial primaries. Henry Howell won an historic upset over overwhelming favorite Andrew Miller in 1977. Twelve years later, Republican Marshall Coleman came from behind to defeat favored Paul Trible in a three way race. In 2009, Creigh Deeds surprised Democrats by easily winning a three-way nomination contest.

On the surface, since all three primary winners lost the general election, the convention process would seem to be the wiser choice. In this regard, those advocating, either directly or indirectly, for the GOP to reverse course make the usual pro-convention arguments. They say the process is far less costly than a primary, and that it avoids the divisiveness of a contentious public shootout between two GOP heavyweights.

While a convention process is indeed cheaper, it isn’t cheap. In that regard, the winner suffers from what ailed Mr. Earley: even after winning the nomination and serving as Attorney General, Earley’s basic name ID was still below that of Mr. Warner’s, whose claim to political fame was positive name ID received from TV advertising and “free media” in a losing race to John Warner five years earlier. This “PR” proved far more valuable to Warner even than Earley’s having won a statewide election and having served most of that period in statewide office.

The point being: Even though Warner lost a contentious general election battle, the contest produced huge political benefits.

In that connection, Howell, Coleman and Deeds prove the adage that nothing succeeds like success.  Howell came out of the 1977 primary with a lead in the polls and huge momentum, given the totally unexpected upset, a poll on election day showing him down 20%! Coleman likewise emerged with a big lead. Mr. Deeds also held the pole position in the early post-primary polls.

The point being: The primary process provided a big net plus to the winners as they went forth into the general election. Howell’s loss had nothing to do with any of the issues or attacks raised in the primary, the same for Mr. Deeds. As for Mr. Coleman, his stance on abortion helped in the primary but hurt in the general: however, since the position stayed the same, it would have still hurt in the general even if he had been nominated by a convention.

The process made them the general election favorites, even though all three started out as long shots in their primaries.

Bottom line: In hindsight, all three men, if they had it to do over again, would now realize a primary win provides a unique point in time. At that point, the winner, in the glow of victory, has to seize the moment for maximum political advantage.

To me, the big lesson from these campaigns is that a primary win provides the unique and super-valuable asset of being able to follow up immediately with an aggressive several-week general election push while you have the public’s attention. That’s when you can put your general election opponent on the defensiveness.  

But this is contrary to what is generally done, in good measure because the campaigns and candidate have pushed themselves to exhaustion in order to win the primary. The thrill of victory invariably leads to a sigh of relief and the natural tendency to want to take a break from the pressure cooker.

This, in my view, squanders the big asset of the primary win. Or to paraphrase General MacArthur, there is no substitute for a primary victory!

The conventional wisdom therefore is wrong again this year.

Both Cuccinelli and Bolling would benefit far more, all things considered, from a primary win than from a convention win. Indeed, the most splintered the GOP has been in the modern era here in VA, came after their 1985 and 2001 conventions! In contrast, Republicans were basically united in 1989 behind Coleman. But in 1985 and 2001, there were formal groups of usual Republicans formed to back the Democrat. The same had happened in 1981 when Coleman first won the GOP nomination in at a convention.

But you say: Cuccinelli has a lot better chance of winning a convention than a primary.

That may be, although the polls suggest that Bill Bolling is well liked across the GOP spectrum. Bolling also has the Marcus and Allen boys running his campaign, and they know the GOP as well as anyone.

If I were Cuccinelli, I would say to myself: If I can’t beat Bolling in a primary, there is no way I am going to win the general election.

So to me, it is your basic risk v reward political decision.

Cuccinelli, unlike Bolling, has the intra-party juice to shut down any move to reverse field and go to a convention.

He has to weigh the PR payoff from a primary win against what appears to be his camp’s belief they have a better chance of winning the nomination in a convention process.

To me, the risk vs reward comes out one way: Primary, full steam ahead.  

There's no paywall on Blue Virginia, and we definitely want to keep it that way! If you want to help support our work, you can donate here - thanks! Also, you can sign up for our weekly email list here.