Virginia GOP chairman apologizes to statewide candidates for confusion over drive-in convention at Liberty University

Lynchburg & Central Virginia News

Virginia State Capitol (Photo taken by 8News’ Dean Mirshahi)

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC/WFXR) — Republicans vying to be Virginia’s next governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general received an apology Wednesday from the state party’s chairman over the confusion surrounding the GOP’s plans to have a drive-in convention at Liberty University.

During a meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 23, the Republican State Central Committee approved a proposal to hold its convention at the university on May 8. The plan would have convention delegates cast their ballots for statewide candidates from their cars while parked in lots owned by Liberty.

The GOP’s convention plans appeared to surprise Liberty University, pushing the school to issue a statement the next day denying that an agreement had been reached.

“When asked by the Virginia GOP officials about the possibility of leasing portions of retail center lots off campus for a day to facilitate a COVID-19 plan for its convention, Liberty said it would consider it, provided that full rental cost for the use was paid,” the university’s statement read. “So far, Liberty has not agreed to any particular plan or contract.”

Republicans will nominate candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general before November’s general election, deciding to hold a statewide convention to pick those nominees after a final vote Tuesday night. Rich Anderson, the chair of the Republican Party of Virginia, sent an email Wednesday to all of the statewide candidates after Liberty shared its statement.

“The press release and the situation that precipitated it are troubling and follow the prolonged period of uncertainty that has been inflicted on your campaigns over the last three months by continual SCC infighting, division, and disagreement,” Anderson wrote.

While those who backed a convention said no agreement had been reached with Liberty, they called it a final solution and said approval was granted. Willie Deutsch, a member on the GOP State Central Committee, told other members Tuesday that Liberty University could provide the space and that a drive-in convention at the university was the “last option.” 

Trevor Webb, a Liberty student, told the committee during the meeting that plans to use tens of thousands of parking spaces at the university seemed “unfeasible” and asked if Liberty had even approved such a proposal. 

“We do have approval from Liberty,” Mike Ginsberg, a committee member from northern Virginia, responded. “We certainly would not have proposed it if we did not have their authorization to do so. We most certainly have the authorization to do that.” 

Ginsberg added that a site survey would still need to be conducted at the university and the specific communication methods for the convention, including whether delegates will use their radios to listen to speeches from candidates, are still being discussed.

Anderson wrote that the university’s senior vice president for communications and public engagement told him before he sent the email that media inquiries and concerns from community members and students led Liberty to share a press release to answer those questions.

While no agreement has been reached, Anderson said the party is working to finalize one and that Liberty officials are willing to have them for a site visit, which could come as early as next week.

“As state party chair, I speak on behalf of RPV in expressing my deepest apologies to each of you for the situation that has been created by the SCC and which your campaigns have had to endure over the last three months—culminating in today’s press release by LU,” Anderson’s email continued. “You deserve better than this, and I intend to fix it for the remainder of this nomination cycle and into the general election campaign after we select our three nominees.”

Liberty said in its statement that a spokesperson for the committee reached out on Wednesday, Feb. 24 “to arrange a visit to the sites and to discuss plans with the understanding that many details need to be worked out for an agreement.”

Concerns over holding a statewide convention amid coronavirus restrictions led to other suggestions, including an unassembled convention or party canvass. One Republican gubernatorial contender, state Sen. Amanda Chase, even cited the restrictions in a lawsuit against the Virginia GOP to force a statewide primary.

The lawsuit sought an injunction, arguing that possibly having 5,000 to 10,000 delegates “under one roof” violates gathering restrictions in response to the global pandemic. A Richmond judge denied Chase’s effort, essentially ending any chance that a primary would be used to nominate statewide candidates.

Virginia’s last three Republican governors had urged the GOP State Central Committee to choose a party canvass, also referred to as a firehouse primary, writing in a letter to members before the meeting Tuesday that the panel’s inability to pick a final process “has been disheartening” to watch from afar.

Former Virginia Govs. George F. Allen, James S. Gilmore, and Robert F. McDonnell argued that a canvass, essentially a party-run primary, would have accommodated a larger group of voters while giving the GOP authority to prevent Democrats from taking part by requiring people to sign a pledge. The former GOP governors contended the party would not be able to move forward with a statewide convention under the coronavirus restrictions imposed by Gov. Ralph Northam (D).

“Given the current gubernatorial executive order in place, which could be further extended by this Governor, a large statewide convention will likely not be permissible in June in government-restricted Virginia,” they wrote. “We strongly urge you to put aside differences tonight and select a canvass, which has been successfully used many times previously by our party.”

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