Convention vs Primary

Contributed by Jonathan Lyle

Nominating a winning Republican candidate:  Primary or Convention?

The decision (or decisions) on how to nominate the 2021 Republican state-wide candidates has been a mish-mash of wrestling matches, skirmishes and all-out battles. Debating whether a Primary or a Convention should be used to select our nominees has been a months-long process.  It has fired emotions, created tension and distracted from the messages the candidates want to deliver.

Now, even with the decision made to nominate the state-wide candidates via an unassembled convention, the question is still being debated: which method IS best for nominating a winning candidate – a convention or a primary? 

Both processes have ardent advocates who declare that the Primary/Convention (choose your favorite) gives the Republicans the best shot at winning in November.

Who is right? Does one nominating method produce more winners than the other? I went back into my archives, and looked to see which process I had been a part of since 1977 that had delivered more November winners. 

The table below shows what my experiences have been: a mixed bag of results. Candidates nominated by a convention have won…and have lost.  Candidates nominated via a primary have won…and have lost

From 1977 to 2020, sixteen winning Republican candidates were nominated at a convention or mass meeting, and fourteen were nominated via a primary. My (personal) analysis is that the process is not as important as is the candidate that is nominated, and the message that the candidate delivers on the campaign trail. 

Because the Virginia Republican Party did not have much of a presence in the 70’s, all of the Republican state-wide candidates in those years were selected by conventions.  It was in 1989 that Republicans first nominated a candidate for Governor in a primary (Marshall Coleman – he lost to Doug Wilder that November.) The other gubernatorial primaries since 1961 were in 2005 (Jerry Kilgore) and 2017 (Ed Gillespie). Both lost in November.

There have been primaries for US Senate, congressional seats, and local races. Presidential “preference” primaries are held every four years (but delegates get selected at the state and congressional conventions…go figure.)

I have (mostly) preferred Conventions over Primaries due to Virginia’s open voter registration. One does not register by party in Virginia: that means any registered voter can participate in a Primary.

This open registration has led to “mischief”,  with Democrats voting in Republican primaries (supporting the perceived weakest candidate), and vice-versa.  Two frequently cited examples of this mischief-making are the 1977 Democrat gubernatorial primary and the 1996 US Senate Republican primary.

In 1977, Democrat Henry Howell (the Bernie Sanders of his day) defeated Andy Miller, the “establishment” candidate in the Democrat primary by 1% (about 13,638 votes.) I remember that primary because I voted in it. I had already been a delegate to the Republican state convention in May that nominated John Dalton for Governor. Weeks later, I voted for Henry Howell in the open primary.  Dalton won the November election by 56% to 43% …or a 157,983 vote margin out of 1,240,000 votes.

The other open primary mischief I remember was in 1996, when RINO Senator John Warner (AKA ‘Bill Clinton’s favorite Republican Senator’…) opted for a primary versus a convention against Jim Miller, a former Reagan administration member. 

Warner earned his RINO stripes when he opposed Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court, and then in 1994, had actively campaigned against Republican nominee Oliver North in the senate race to beat Chuck Robb.  Warner knew he could easily have lost a convention nominating contest against Miller: at the state Republican convention preceding the June primary, 76% of the delegates favored Miller in a straw poll. (Yeah…there was a state convention and a primary that year….much like there was a Republican primary and convention in 2016.)

By choosing the primary nominating option, Warner could – and did – openly seek to attract Democrats and independents to vote in the open Republican June primary. “Everybody has the right to participate in the primary” Warner told reporters.

And Warner was successful in getting the Democrat and “independent” vote in the primary. A study by UVA’s Larry Sabato reported that over 30% of the primary ballots had been cast by persons other than Republicans, and 77% of those votes went to RINO Warner. And Democrats weren’t shy about it, either. Democrat state Senator Edd Houck from Spotsylvania visibly participated in the primary.

When are Democrats NOT likely to vote in a Republican primary? When there are Democrat and Republican primaries at the same time. When both parties are having primaries, a voter has to choose a Republican ballot or a Democrat ballot. One can’t get both ballots.

With dual primaries, it is unlikely that Republican voters committed to a candidate are going to give up his or her vote in a Republican primary so they can make mischief in a Democrat primary. And it’s just as unlikely that a Democrat is going to give up the opportunity to vote for Hillary Clinton or Barak Obama in a primary just so he or she can vote for Mitt Romney or John McCain in a Republican primary.

But if there is no Democrat primary…or there is no Republican primary…the opportunity to see mischief makers cross over is real…and it’s documented.

Does that automatically mean conventions are better?  I think mostly yes, but as with everything, there are exceptions.

Conventions are time consuming.  Conventions do require a commitment.  Is that always a bad thing?  I don’t believe so.  One has to be dedicated to commit a day (or a weekend) to participate in a convention. It’s not a spur-of-the-moment decision. 

Going to a polling station (or “early voting”) in a primary is a 15 to 20 minute activity. I know people who vote because it’s a “civic duty”…and they do not know who is on the ballot. (Everyone who has ever been a poll worker has had a voter come up and ask: “who’s running for (fill an office name)?”. Everyone.)

My experience with conventions is that a majority of Republican delegates are familiar with the Virginia Republican Creed. They are aware of the principles that are the basis of the Republican Party.    

Conversely, I don’t believe a majority of Republican primary voters are familiar with the Republican Creed.  But those primary voters who don’t know the creed, and ask the “who’s running?” question, have equal weight in selecting the Party’s nominee in a primary, the same as a county committee member committed to Republican principles. (I think sometimes that’s why we wind up with RINOs…like John Warner. Flash, not principles, wins the nomination in a primary.)

Can there be pluses to having a primary?  Yes. It definitely expands the number of individuals participating (including Democrats and “Independents”…).  Even at an anemic  5% voter turnout, a state-wide primary will have tens of thousands more people participating in a primary versus a convention.  And the case could be made that someone voting in a Republican primary will be locked-in to support the Republican nominee in November. So the base is expanded.

Plus, this year, a primary – or a party canvass — during a pandemic could also make sense. The Executive orders issued by Governor Northam in 2020 and 2021 have made it terribly difficult to have a convention: assembled, unassembled, or drive-through. The rules change on the Governor’s whims, and multiple ballots at a pandemic convention make for a loooong day. People who are convention delegates in the pandemic years are truly committed Republicans.

And with a Democrat state-wide primary scheduled this year for June, I would have been OK with a primary in 2021. The Democrat primary means there is less of a possibility for Democrat mischief in a Republican primary this year, in my opinion.

When all of the unique factors of an election cycle are considered, I will favor a nomination process that will deliver the best opportunity to elect the Republican nominee in November.  I start with a bias to nominate via a convention, but when faced with “unprecedented events” or other circumstances, I can appreciate that a primary could be the best means of nominating a Republican winner in November.

Primary or Convention: Here’s to a win for the GOP in November!


The hard data – Which one – Convention vs Primary – proves success? (hint: neither)

YearContestPrimary or ConventionNomination CandidatesNomination WinnerVirginia November Winner
1977Dem GovernorPrimaryHenry Howell v. Andy MillerHowellDalton – R
1977Dem Lt. GovPrimaryIra Lechner v. Chuck RobbChuck RobbChuck Robb – D
1977Dem Atty GenPrimaryShad Solomon v. Ed LaneEd LaneMarshall Coleman – R
1977GovernorConventionJohn DaltonDaltonDalton – R
1977Lt. GovernorConventionCanada v. CraigieCanadaRobb – D
1977Attorney GeneralConventionMarshall Coleman v. Wyatt DurretteColemanColeman – R
1978US SenateConventionDick Obenshain v. Warner, Holton, MillerDick ObenshainWarner – R
1981GovernorConventionMarshall Coleman ColemanRobb – D
1981Lt. GovernorConventionNathan Miller v Guy Farley, Herb BatemanMillerDick Davis – D
1981Attorney GeneralConventionWyatt DurretteDurretteBaliles – D
1982US SenateConventionPaul TribleTribleTrible – R
1985GovernorConventionWyatt Durrette v. Stan ParrisDurretteBaliles – D
1985Lt. GovernorConventionChichester v. Coleman, Viguerie, Geisen, DawkinsChichesterWilder – D
1985Attorney GeneralConventionBuster O’BrienO’BrienTerry – D
1989GovernorPrimaryMarshall Coleman, Paul Trible, Stan ParrisColemanWilder – D
1989Lt. GovernorPrimaryEddy DaltonDaltonByer – D
1989Attorney GeneralPrimaryJoe BenedettiBenedettiTerry – D
1990US SenateConventionJohn WarnerWarnerWarner – R
1993GovernorConventionGeorge Allen v. Clint Miller, Earle WilliamsAllenAllen – R
1993Lt. GovernorConventionMike Farris v. Bobbie KilbergFarrisByer – D
1993Attorney GeneralConventionJim Gilmore v. Steve AgeeGilmoreGilmore – R
1994US SenateConventionOliver North v. Jim MillerOliver NorthRobb – D
1996US SenatePrimaryJim Miller v. John WarnerWarnerWarner – R
1997GovernorPrimaryGilmoreGilmoreGilmore – R
1997Lt. GovernorPrimaryJohn HagarHagarHagar – R
1997Attorney GeneralPrimaryMark Earley v. Kilgore, Stolle, Gil DavisEarleyEarley – R
20007th District CongressPrimaryEric Cantor v. Steve MartinCantorCantor – R
2000US SenateConventionGeorge AllenAllenAllen -R
2001GovernorConventionMark Earley v. John HagarEarleyMark Warner – D
2001Lt. GovernorConventionJay KatzenKatzenKaine – D
2001Attorney GeneralConventionJerry KilgoreKilgoreKilgore – R
2002US SenateConventionJohn WarnerWarnerWarner – R
2005GovernorPrimaryKilgore v. G. FitchKilgoreKaine – D
2005Lt. GovernorPrimaryBill Bolling v. Sean ConnaughtonBollingBolling – R
2005Attorney GeneralPrimaryBob McDonnell v. Steve BarilMcDonnellMcDonnell – R
2006US SenateConventionAllenAllenWebb – D
2007Goochland 5th District SupervisorMass MeetingPat Turner v. Jim EadsEadsEads – R
2007Virginia Senate 12th Dist.PrimaryStosch v. BlackburnStoschStosch – R
2008US SenateConventionGilmoreGilmoreWarner – D
2009GovernorConventionBob McDonnellMcDonnellMcDonnell – R
2009Lt. GovernorConventionBill Bolling BollingBolling – R
2009Attorney GeneralConventionCucinelli v. BrownleeCuccinelliCuccenelli – R
201122nd District SenatePrimaryTom Garrett v. Bryan Rhode, Mark Peake et. al.GarrettGarrett – R
2011Goochland 5th District SupervisorParty CanvassKen Peterson v. Courtney HeyersPetersonPeterson – R
20127th District CongressPrimaryEric Cantor v. Floyd BayneCantorCantor – R
2012US SenatePrimaryGeorge Allen v. Jamie Ratdke, Bob Marshall, E. W. JacksonAllenKaine – D
2013GovernorConventionCuccenelliCuccinelliMacAuliff – D
2013Lt. GovernorConventionE.W. Jackson v. Pete Snyder, Corey Stewart, Lingamfelter, Martin, Devolites-Davis, StimpsonE.W. JacksonNortham – D
2013Attorney GeneralConventionMark Obenshain v. Rob BellObenshainHerring – D
20147th District ChairConventionLinwood Cobb v. Fred GruberGrubern/a
20147th District CongressPrimaryDave Brat v. Eric CantorBratBrat – R
2014US SenateConventionEd Gillespie v. Shak Hill, Tony DeTora, Charlie MossGillespieWarner – D
2016PresidentPrimaryTed Cruz v. Trump, Rubio, Kasich, othersTrump              (Rubio in Goochland)Clinton – D
201622nd District State SenateConventionKen Peterson v. Mark PeakePeakePeake – R
201756th House of DelegatesPrimaryGraven Craig v. John McGuire, George Goodwin,  Jay Pendegrast, Matt Pinsker, Surya DhakarMcGuireMcGuire – R
2017GovernorPrimaryEd Gillespie v. Corey Stewart, Frank WagnerGillespieWarner -D
2017Lt. GovenorPrimary Bryce Reeves v. Vogel, DavisVogelFairfax – D
2017Attorney GeneralPrimaryJohn Adams v. Chuck SmithAdamsHerring – D
2018US SenatePrimaryNick Freitas v. Corey Stewart, E.W. JacksonStewartKaine – D
2019Goochland Commonwealth AttorneyMass MeetingMike Caudill v. “no endorsement”CaudillCaudill – R
2019Goochland SheriffMass MeetingSteven Creasy v. Emil FisherCreasyCreasy – R
20207th District CongressConventionNick Freitas v. John McGuire, et. alFreitasSpanberger – D
2020US SenatePrimaryDaniel Gade v. Alissa Baldwin, Thomas SpecialeGadeWarner – D

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