Does Virginia Have a Venue Capable of Holding a 2017 Nominating Convention?

This Saturday, RPV’s State Central Committee is expected to select its method of nomination for 2017 in what is widely expected to be a close vote.

While compelling arguments have been made on both sides, they tend to focus on which is better on principle, better for the party, or better for the candidates’ hopes in November.

One consideration has been overlooked: can the competing methods accommodate all aspiring participants?

State-run primaries and party canvasses certainly can, as could regional or district conventions, but planning a statewide convention presents another, unique challenge.

Can the location of the statewide convention even hold all the delegates who might want to participate?

The answer to that question is less than certain considering the high turnout in RPV’s 2013 convention alongside credible concerns that 2017’s turnout might be even higher.

Virginia may not have a venue capable of accommodating all the potential delegates.


Times Have Changed

In the old days, capacity concerns could be satisfied by limiting delegation sizes to match venue limitations. These limits required units to elect slates of delegates to represent the unit as a whole – at least in theory.

In practice, though, slating provided the spark for factional conflict, division, and exclusion, as willing participants found themselves slated off delegations kept unnecessarily small for the sole purpose of allowing majority factions in local units the ability to send a disproportionately high number of favorable delegates as a means of influencing the outcome.

After much party infighting, slating was essentially prohibited.

Now, duly filed delegates can’t be excluded unless a unit is overfiled, but under the party plan, the delegate limit is so high as to not be a limit at all.

Consider the limits applicable to RPV’s 2016 quadrennial convention. At maximum, 56,715 delegates and 56,715 alternates could be elected, for a grand total of 113,430 credentialed participants – not including minor children, guests, staff, and journalists.

There exists no stadium or arena on Planet Earth which can accommodate that many people.

The willingness of delegates to participate is the only practical limitation on how many may attend.


2017 May be Bigger than 2013

For Virginia Republicans, the high water mark was 2013, when over 13,000 delegates were certified and more than 8000 attended the convention in Richmond.

In that cycle, the gubernatorial race provided the spark, but Bill Bolling’s withdrawal from the race kept filing and attendance down from the levels expected had he chosen instead to compete, file delegates, and encourage turnout.

So, with no competitive gubernatorial race, and no challenge to the reelection bid of then-Chairman Pat Mullins, turnout was driven downticket by the races for Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General.

The 2017 cycle will be different.

Three very credible gubernatorial contenders are expected to raise substantial campaign funds and build out extensive field operations as they compete intensely for the nomination. All three are proven fundraisers drawing resources and delegates from across the Republican spectrum.

Although the current LG field is smaller, the race doesn’t look to be contested with any less vigor. As of June 30th, the three contenders had already raised one quarter of what was spent in 2013. More candidates are expected to join if SCC elects to nominate by convention, some of whom, particularly Delegate Ben Cline, are expected to run credible, well-funded operations.

The AG’s race is currently on pace to smash 2013’s fundraising totals. As of June 30th, Delegate Rob Bell already has in the bank 70% of what he spent in the entire 2013 cycle while his chief competitor John Adams posted an also-impressive fundraising haul putting him on track to outspend Obenshain in 2013.

These sizable fundraising totals foreshadow the vigor with which the three races will be contested. Money pays for advertising to reach potential delegates and also the extensive field operations needed to file them and drive turnout across Virginia.

By every indication, RPV needs to plan for the possibility of 2017 convention participation substantially exceeding that of 2013, in both delegate certifications and actual turnout.

However, there’s one more factor which could drive turnout even higher: the Senate.

If Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine should win in November as the projections suggest – and yes, convention planners must prepare for this possibility even as Republicans work to turn the race around and elect Donald Trump and Mike Pence – then the race to nominate a Republican for US Senate in 2017 will provide another enormous draw for delegates and another enormous pool of resources to recruit them, file them, and turn them out.

Virginia’s Indoor Venues May Not be Large Enough

Virginia may not have a venue capable of holding all the delegates turning out for hotly contested races for US Senate, Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Attorney General.

The Richmond Coliseum, where RPV held its 2013 convention, is only rated for a capacity of 13,410.

Virginia’s largest indoor venue, the John Paul Jones Arena at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, is only capable of seating 15,405 at maximum capacity.

In 2013, more delegates were certified than the Coliseum could hold, not accounting for the myriad of minor children, guests, staff, journalists, and other participants. Only though reduced turnout were delegates not left standing outside.

Conventions can be chaotic enough without delegates spilling out into the parking lot or being shuttled to alternate locations booked at the last minute, if those locations even exist on the UVA campus or nearby.

Alternate locations would be a logistical nightmare for convention staff, candidates, and their campaigns, creating new sources of delay and miscommunication while opening the door for convention hijinks.

Those conditions also raise the specter of a long-lasting convention with unnecessary delay, as was seen in 2016 and 2013, where races may have been decided not based on actual delegate preference at inception, but rather, on who went home early.

Likewise, the process of deciding which units to shuttle off to satellite locations could become a source of friction should inadequate accommodations cause delegates from certain units to consider leaving early, before the final ballot.


Addressing the Uncertainties

Prior to Saturday’s vote on the 2017 nomination method, three sequential questions need to be addressed:

Do the conditions of 2017 create a reasonable possibility that filings and turnout will exceed 2013, where certified filings exceeded capacity and the venue could have overflown?

Will any increase in turnout which must be planned for exceed the capacity of Virginia’s largest indoor venue?

If an overflow convention comes to pass, how will RPV handle it, what changes will be made to the logistics and proceedings, how much notice will be required to accommodate the overflow, and at what cost to the party?

One possible source of hope for convention planners facing these logistical challenges lies in the location. If held in Charlottesville, the large delegations from units in Hampton Roads will face an extra hour of commute and may not turn out in the same numbers in 2013 – though that’s a risky bet to make given one and perhaps two races of higher consequence.


What’s Best for the Party?

Unfortunately, the convention-vs-primary debate has become so polarized between the factions to overshadow legitimate and neutral considerations in planning and logistics.

The potential inability to confidently accommodate all delegates in one venue is one argument favoring a state-run primary, but it also opens to door to consideration of other nomination methods, such as a party-run canvass (firehouse primary) or satellite conventions, whether held at a regional or district level.

All factionalism aside, what remains clear is this: as a party, Virginia Republicans overwhelmingly decided that all qualified persons wishing to participate in party-run processes must be accommodated when SCC voted to eliminate slating.

Now, that vision must be translated into a concrete plan, and it must be done before Saturday.

The statewide campaigns deserve better than three more months of uncertainty in knowing which method of nomination they face and how to prepare and campaign accordingly.

Without certainty, campaigns exist in limbo: they can pursue both with reduced efficacy, or they guess and gear their strategy for a specific method of nomination.

Regardless of the specific method chosen, the process should stay true to its purpose of selecting the strongest candidate for each race, rather than the luckiest who guessed correctly and committed their strategy and resources accordingly.


Is the “Compromise” Still Relevant?

Much has been written on the “compromise” of 2015. Some urge adherence to the deal while others insist no deal ever existed.

In practice, though, those who willingly availed themselves of the terms of the compromise may not have anticipated the logistical challenges inherent in accommodating all the delegates. Back in the summer of 2015, nobody had any concrete reason to believe RPV might be facing a perfect storm of turnout capable of overwhelming any indoor venue in the Commonwealth.

These emergent circumstances were beyond anybody’s planning or control and emphasize the pitfalls of the uncertainty inherent in trying to plan for a nomination two years out through deal making, rather than consideration of present circumstances.

The vote will probably be finished in 48 hours. After that, Virginia’s Republicans will have to live with the result.

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