The Virginia Fifth Congressional District Democratic Committee voted 16-7 in favor of continuing to hold a convention over a primary election as the nomination method for selecting a Democratic candidate for the 2018 Fifth district Congressional election at a meeting Monday at Wilson Hall. The convention will be held May 5 in Farmville, Va.
Contenders for the nomination include Ben Cullop, Leslie Cockburn, Lawrence Gaughan, Roger Huffstetler and Andrew Sneathern. Whoever secures the nomination will run against incumbent Republican Rep. Tom Garrett in the midterm elections this November.
According to the Fifth District Democrats , the committee includes over 18 counties in Virginia and the cities of Charlottesville and Danville which hold independent elections and have their own Democratic Committees. The committee is composed of representatives from each locality in the Fifth District who are typically members of their respective local Democratic committees.
During a regularly scheduled meeting last month, the committee discussed the possibility of converting the nomination method from the traditionally used caucus convention to a primary election. The Fifth District has never held a Democratic primary before for the nomination of a candidate for Congress.
The convention, currently scheduled for May, will include 160 delegates representing the 23 localities of the Fifth District. Before the convention takes place, local Democratic committees will hold caucuses to select delegates for the convention, which are distributed in proportion to localities’ population.
Albemarle County has 34 delegates and the City of Charlottesville has 17, meaning the two localities combined hold nearly a third of the total delegate votes in the the Fifth District.
Under the convention process, a nominee must receive more than 50 percent — or 81 delegates minimum — of the total vote to be selected. If a candidate is unable to reach either figure during the first round of voting, the candidate with the fewest votes will be eliminated and the process will restart.
As with primary elections in which votes are directly cast for candidates, registered voters still participate in caucuses held at the county and city level within the Fifth District by selecting delegates from each locality who then choose a candidate for the Democratic nomination at the convention.
Jake Rubenstein, communications director for the Virginia Democratic Party, explained that the proposal had entailed a lengthy discussion but that it had remained difficult to reach a consensus.
“There are a number of reasons why the convention committee didn’t reach a consensus on Feb. 9,” Rubenstein said. “It was difficult to make a decision at a conference call. There were different sounds and technical glitches [that] made it difficult to decipher what was going on. The members of the committee want[ed] to have a meeting in person.”
The motivation behind the proposed conversion to a primary election system stems from concerns by committee members that the convention body fails to objectively assess each potential candidate during the nomination process. During Monday’s open meeting, however, Chairwoman Suzanne Long reiterated that the committee supports neutrality and open campaigning.
“I have received no pressure from the state party to favor a candidate over another or a nomination procedure over another,” Long said. “We are constantly doing risk analysis and keep our eyes open.”
Long has also said that the convention process aims to equitably represent all portions of the Fifth district, especially rural areas, by encouraging candidates to campaign throughout the region to earn the support of delegates.
Gaughan — who won the Democratic nomination in 2014 and is currently seeking the Democratic nomination for the Fifth District — said holding a convention was a more cost effective nomination strategy for campaigns than a primary.
“I have to have a million dollars to win a primary,” Gaughan said. “Instead of getting 81 votes, I have to get maybe 2,000 votes. But with a convention, all I have to do is to call 81 of my friends and ask, ‘Can you go to this convention and vote for me?’ And they will."
Louise Bruce, deputy campaign manager for Cockburn, said in an interview that for either convention or primary, any registered voter can participate.
However, the vote for convention means that there will be caucuses on the county level that choose and send delegates to a larger convention that will ultimately determine the nominee for Congress.
“For the caucus convention process, rather than just filling out the ballot, there is a second step,” Bruce said. “You elect the delegates at the caucus. Then the delegates go to the convention to nominate the nominee.”
Cullop, a Democrat candidate who is running for the Fifth District nomination, said in an email to The Cavalier Daily that all candidates deserve a clear decision from the convention committee about how to proceed forward. Candidates will be able to campaign as usual regardless of the nomination process.
“Either way, I'm looking forward to continuing to campaign on the issues that matter to the people of the 5th District — access to quality and affordable healthcare, a stronger middle class, and better schools for all Virginians — and putting the process questions behind us," Cullop said.
Bruce said that in comparison to the caucus convention, the primary involves more people and can be more expensive in terms of advertising, but added that the nomination method does not necessarily interfere with the on-going Cockburn campaign.
“The switch won’t affect our campaign. We are very confident that we have built a strong campaign,” Bruce said. “We will do well whether it is caucus convention or primary.”
Despite the debates and votings surrounding the nomination method, the ultimate goal for the Democrats is unified and unchanged Long said.
“Our mission is to nominate a nominee who would run as a Democrats to defeat Tom Garrett,” Long said. “We have work hard as a committee to nominate a nominee without bias and we encourage voters to be a part of the process.”
Huffstetler and Sneathern did not respond to requests for comment by press time.