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Virginia GOP Convention Over Primary: Good Move?

The Virginia Republican Party will nominate its candidates during a convention in two weeks, and some experts have weighed in on the system.

When Virginia’s Republican Party made a last-minute decision to nominate candidates for the 2013 election in a convention instead of a primary, as originally planned, it prompted Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling to withdraw his name from the race for governor.

The move made the especially conservative Ken Cuccinelli, Virginia’s current attorney general, the GOP’s de facto nominee for governor. He's expected to be officially nominated during the Virginia Republican Convention on May 17 and 18 in Richmond. (See our guide to the convention right here.)

See Also: Poll: Does the Virginia GOP Convention Represent True Democracy?

Bolling said he dropped out of the race because he didn’t agree with the convention system, arguing that it made the nomination exlusionary.

“Conventions are by their very nature exclusive, and at a time when we need to be projecting a positive image and reaching out to involve more Virginians in the Republican Party, I am unwilling to be part of a process that could seriously damage our image and appeal,” he said in his statement at the time.

But the switch to a convention also severely hurt his chances at winning the nomination.

“[Bolling’s] prospects declined greatly when the Republicans made the decision to go to the convention for the primary,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington.

A Republican Convention nomination system would heavily favor the more conservative candidate, Farnsworth told Patch.

“The convention process is tailor-made for giving you the most extreme nominee,” he said. “General elections are won and lost in the ideological center, but the nomination campaigns usually favor more extreme candidates.”

And that was part of the problem Bolling was addressing when he dropped out, said Mark Rozell, a public policy professor at George Mason University.

“Conventions are notorious at times for picking candidates who do not do well in general elections,” Rozell said. "You want to give a candidate the opportunity to reach out to a broader spectrum of voters, and that’s what a primary forces the candidate to do. It teaches a candidate to hone a message for a broader audience … and not just appeal to partisan activists.”

Cuccinelli and Bolling, along with Gov. Bob McDonnell, were nominated at a convention in 2009. The party’s State Central Committee then voted to change back to a primary for 2013.

But a series of new members elected to the committee changed all that. The committee voted again in June 2012 to hold a convention instead.

“A Republican primary would involve the most conservative 5 percent of the electorate, basically,” Farnsworth said. “A convention would be the most conservative fraction of that five percent.”

Cuccinelli’s camp has maintained that he would have sought the nomination for governor in whatever process was selected, but he has been a supporter of conventions in the past.

“We’ve been anticipating running in a primary, but we’d obviously rather use the two to three million dollars we’d save in a convention to use against Democrats in a general election,” Noah Wall, Cuccinelli’s political dirtector, told the Washington Post last year.

Jay McConville, chairman of Fairfax County's Republican Committee, said he didn't have opinion on a convention as opposed to a primary.

"We know that either convention or primary are valid methods of doing it and we leave it to the process to pick that method," McConville said. "There are people in the committee who believe that it should be convention all the time and there’s others who believe in primaries, so we allow the process to work it through election by election."

Virginia's GOP will have to wait and see what the system means for its gubernatorial candidate.

“Ken Cuccinelli has really created a profile for himself politically that is very conservative, which is great for winning nominations,” Farnsworth said. “How it’ll work in a general election we’ll see in November.”

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