Lawsuit: Governor, attorney general ‘strong-armed’ GOP primary’s change to convention

Published 3:50 pm Friday, March 24, 2023

A Republican Party official’s lawsuit alleges Gov. Glenn Youngkin and Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares unlawfully interfered in the method of selecting a GOP candidate to run for the state’s newly created 17th Senate District.

Dawn Jones, who identifies herself in her complaint as chairwoman of the party’s 17th District legislative committee, filed the March 16 suit in Richmond’s Circuit Court. It names the Virginia Department of Elections, State Board of Elections and Department of Elections Commissioner Susan Beals as defendants.

A March 9 letter from Beals to local electoral boards listed June 20 Republican primaries for 27 Senate races, including the 17th. But a nearly identical March 10 letter showed primaries for only 26 races, the 17th no longer among them.

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Del. Emily Brewer, R-Isle of Wight, is running for the party’s nomination against retired NASCAR driver Hermie Sadler of Emporia. The new district, created in 2021 based on the 2020 Census, encompasses 10 localities, including Isle of Wight County. The 17th’s Legislative District Committee is composed of Republican Party chairs from each locality.

Jones’ lawsuit contends that she, as committee chair, sent notice to the state on March 9 that the body had decided to hold a June 20 primary but that Youngkin and Miyares, through their representatives, “strong-armed” the Department of Elections into changing the method back to a convention a day later.

In a primary, polls would open to all voters, regardless of party affiliation, in each locality on June 20 from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., and voters also would have the option of voting early or by absentee ballot. Conventions, on the other hand, are held at a specific place and time, not necessarily coinciding with other primary races. To cast ballots, convention voters have to register as delegates and travel to the site to fill out a “convention delegate form.”

Since the start of the month, conflicting information has emerged from the state and candidates concerning the Brewer-Sadler race. On March 1, Sadler announced the 17th’s legislative committee had voted to hold a primary, prompting the Republican Party to issue its own statement on March 2 contending the vote to be invalid due to the committee’s having lacked enough members to constitute a quorum. Eight days later, citing Beals’ March 9 letter, Sadler again announced there would be a primary, only to have state election officials dispute his claim.

Jones’ lawsuit contends “certain high-ranking Republican Party officials” have been “working to support” one candidate over the other.

These officials “include the Governor and the Attorney General” and “believe that a small convention would favor this candidate more than a primary,” Jones’ lawsuit alleges.

Sadler made a similar allegation to The Smithfield Times on March 10 when he argued that changing from a primary to a convention would give Brewer an edge.

The Republican Party’s official call for a 17th Senate District convention on June 3 at Paul D. Camp Community College’s Franklin campus gives Suffolk a maximum of 315 delegates, the most of any of the 17th’s 10 localities. Each GOP chapter is allowed one delegate vote per 500 votes of “Republican Party voting strength.” If all 315 Suffolk delegates attend, each delegate’s ballot would be worth one-fifth of one vote, since Suffolk is allotted 63 votes out of 182 total votes districtwide.

Since Suffolk has the largest weighted vote, Suffolk’s GOP chairman would have “control over the mass meeting” at the convention, and could decide “who can vote,” Sadler said in a March 10 email.

The Republican Party of Virginia website lists Steve Trent as the Suffolk GOP’s chairman. Trent, according to campaign finance reports, gave Brewer a $500 donation in December.

Trent, who’s chaired the Suffolk GOP before, was recently reinstalled as its leader via an effort by the 2nd Congressional District’s legislative committee, Sadler alleged.

A March 1 statement on the Suffolk GOP’s Facebook page by Jones, who identifies herself as the Suffolk GOP’s “rightful chair,” alleges an effort by Dennis Free, chairman of the 2nd Congressional District’s GOP committee, to “dissolve” the Suffolk chapter on grounds that the unit had become “dysfunctional.” Jones characterized the move as “intimidation tactics” to “suppress conservative members.”

Trent, responding to the Times on March 24, said he was unaware of the pending litigation and deferred comments to state Republican Party spokesman Ken Nunnenkamp, who did not immediately respond by phone or email to the Times’ requests for comments. Free also did not immediately respond to the Times.

The 2nd District committee, a body formed from the party chairs of each city and county in U.S. Rep. Jen Kiggans’ congressional district, has shared updates from Brewer’s campaign to its Facebook page, including Brewer’s recent endorsement by Isle of Wight County School Board Chairman John Collick.

It is “black-letter law that political parties are private organizations with a First Amendment right to freedom of association” without state interference, Jones’ lawsuit contends.

Jones is represented by Lynchburg attorney Rick Boyer, who on March 24 submitted an additional court filing seeking an “expedited hearing.” According to the Richmond Circuit Court’s website, a hearing is set for March 27 at 9:30 a.m.

Department of Elections spokeswoman Andrea Gaines, who’d described Beals’ March 10 letter as a “correction,” declined to comment on Jones’ lawsuit. Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter also declined to comment on the matter, as did Miyares spokeswoman Victoria LaCivita.

Brewer, in a March 24 statement to the Times, said the choice of a convention as the method of nomination had been decided on Dec. 27, and she contended the official convention call now published to the Virginia GOP’s website was issued on March 8.

“Both myself and my opponent are working to collect Delegate forms for the upcoming convention,” Brewer said. “I am proud to be the battle-tested Conservative running in this race.”

“Our team is preparing to win this nomination regardless of whether it’s determined to be by primary or convention,” Sadler said in a March 24 statement to the Times.

Regarding Jones’ litigation, “I applaud this push for transparency in our election systems,” Sadler said. “The seats in the General Assembly belong to the people, not the establishment, and they should be informed about what is going on.”

Brewer, who’s represented the reliably Republican 64th House of Delegates District since 2017, was moved in the 2021 redistricting process to the new, Suffolk-heavy 84th District, which leans narrowly to Democrats based on a Virginia Public Access Project analysis of its share of votes from the 2021 governor’s race. Brewer announced last year she would instead seek the new 17th Senate District seat. Sadler, months later, announced his own candidacy, billing himself as a “conservative outsider.”