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Should the 5th CD Democratic Committee Change from a Convention to a Primary?


Tomorrow night at 9 pm, the 5th CD Democratic Committee is going to be holding a conference call to determine whether or not it will change its method of nomination from a Party-Run Caucus/Convention to a state-run primary. The Caucus/Convention method was chosen last October, with the convention slated for May 5 at the Firemen’s Sports Arena in Farmville. Leading up to that convention would be a series of caucuses to select 160 delegates to the convention.

Last fall, when the Party-Run Caucus/Convention method of nomination was selected, the 5th CD Democratic Committee Chair, Suzanne Long, argued that “it is intended to focus on some of the more rural parts of the district, forcing candidates to spend time in all parts of the 5th to win over delegates.” Which, to my mind, are perfectly legitimate arguments by the way. So should the 5th CD Democrats switch to a primary or not? It’s their choice of course, but a few things to consider include…

First of all, I would have gone with a primary in the first place. I mean, I get the reasons for choosing a Party-Run Caucus/Convention method, but all in all I think that primaries are superior in a number of ways – greater participation of voters, more of an imperative for candidates to build the types of campaigns that can compete in the general election, less susceptible to various sorts of problems – costs, potential for mistakes, perceived biases of various sorts – when the party runs the show. As I’ve said many times before, my ideal would be a primary with ranked/range voting, so that the winner would have to get a majority. But thanks to Judge Dillon and his famous “rule, localities in Virginia aren’t – for whatever assinine reason – allowed to use ranked/range voting. Also, it would probably be better to have party registration, but that’s a whole other discussion…

Second, however, I feel like once a method of nomination is selected — even if it’s not the optimal method — changing in the middle of the process (in this case, with caucuses set to start in mid April) doesn’t seem ideal to me. One problem is that the candidates/campaigns have all been operating since late October under the Caucus/Convention assumption, have hired accordingly, organized their campaigns/strategies/etc. accordingly, you name it. To change now, over three months after the Caucus/Convention method was selected, and only two months until caucuses are slated to kick off, means that campaigns will have to shift gears in a major way. Again, that doesn’t seem like a great way to do business. But having said that, I don’t believe it’s a show stopper to changing the nomination method at this point. Not great, but not a disaster or anything either…

Finally, it does seem to me that different methods of nomination play to different candidates’ strengths, thus favoring – or disfavoring – certain candidates.  For instance, generally speaking, primaries almost certainly require more money, possibly a LOT more money, than caucus/conventions, as campaigns have to reach a LOT more voters. Check out the fundraising numbers for 5th CD candidates:

RD Huffstetler (D): Net contributions of $186,852; Cash on Hand of $474,052.
Leslie Cockburn (D): Net contributions of $195,709; Cash on Hand of $382,697
Ben Cullop (D): Net contributions of $45,863; Cash on Hand of $125,835.
Andrew Sneathern (D): Net contributions of $36,704; Cash on Hand of $121,577.
Lawrence Gaughan (D): N.A.
Rep. Tom Garrett (R): Net contributions of $90,325; Cash on Hand of $107,732.

Clearly, the two Democrats with the most cash on hand are RD Huffstetler and Leslie Cockburn, with Ben Cullop and Andrew Sneathern significantly trailing. On the surface at least, this would seem to mean that Huffstetler and Cockburn would gain an advantage in a primary compared to a caucus/convention. On the other hand, it’s not ranked/range voting, so it’s possible that either Cullop or Sneathern could win with a plurality in a primary, particularly if Huffstetler and Cockburn go after each aggressively. There are other scenarios one could game out here, and in the end, I don’t think the method of nomination should be picked based on which candidate(s) it favors. I’m also not completely convinced that either method DOES favor a particular candidate or candidates, as there are many dynamics/factors at play here, not just who has more money to go on TV or whatever.

Bottom line: The 5th CD Democrats have a big choice to make tomorrow night, and I don’t think there’s one absolutely right or absolutely wrong way to go. For me, I wish they had gone with a primary in the first place, back in October, but I still think there’s enough time for candidates to regroup an run in a primary to be held in June. And in the end, I prefer primaries, certainly for non-local (e.g., School Board, County Board) offices, unless there are overriding reasons not to go with that method of nomination. In this case, I’m not seeing those overriding reasons.

P.S. It’s worth a reminder that every other Democratic congressional committee in Virginia with multiple candidates vying for the party’s nomination (VA-01, VA-02, VA-06, VA-07, VA-09, VA-10) has selected a primary. It’s also worth noting that all of those districts have significant rural portions as well as more urban portions, kinda like the 5th CD.

P.P.S. Over at VICE, they argue about VA-05 that “Democrats will choose their nominee at a party insider–dominated convention instead of a normal primary, a terrible and anti-democratic idea that can still be reversed.”


  • Jason Peterson

    This would be like changing the rules of the game at half-time. I think they should have gone with a primary, but I’m absolutely opposed to them changing to one now.

  • dave schutz

    The really big disadvantage of a first-past-the-post primary, in my view, is the possibility that a, let’s say … different …. candidate will win with a plurality when the great mass of voters would have preferred any one of several other candidates. We’ve just seen a couple of, yes, different candidates prevail or nearly so in FPTP nominating contests on the Reep side (Trump won, Stewart was only a couple thousand votes away from winning because Wagner and Gillespie split the non-fringe vote). An example on the Dem side of the strengths of ranked choice voting was Quan’s victory over Perata in the Oakland mayoral race, where Perata had the analogous position to Trump (Perata was NO TRUMP, this was Oakland after all, but he was the fave for 35 or 40 per cent of the voters and the rest couldn’t stand him) and Quan won with a gradual accretion of #2 votes as the other candidates were counted out. In an FPTP contest, Perata would have won.
    There are two ranked choice bills in the House of Delegates now – one by Patrick Hope of Arlington (for ‘counties with the manager form of government’) – that’s HB 932 and the other – HB553 – by Nick Freitas of Culpeper (yes, that Freitas) and which would be state wide in its application. Neither is compulsory, the local governments would have to decide to do it, but each will allow the local governments to make the choice. 553 covers only general elections, 932 allows the Arlington Board to chose RCV for either primaries or general elections.
    Each is worth support!

    • Agreed; these are bills that everyone can – and should – support.