UPDATE: Ruling expected Wednesday in Senate District 17 lawsuit over GOP nomination method

Published 2:59 pm Monday, March 27, 2023

A Richmond judge expects to rule by Wednesday on an ousted GOP official’s lawsuit that seeks to compel the state to hold a primary rather than a convention to decide the Republican Party’s nominee for Virginia’s 17th Senate District.

Circuit Court Judge Claire Cardwell heard arguments Monday morning from ousted Suffolk GOP Chairwoman Dawn Jones’ Lynchburg attorney, Rick Boyer, and Senior Assistant Attorney General Calvin Brown, representing the state. 

A March 9 letter from Virginia Department of Elections Commissioner Susan 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. Jones’ lawsuit alleges Gov. Glenn Youngkin and Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares unlawfully pressured Beals to make the change for the benefit of one of two candidates vying for the GOP nomination.

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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. Sadler, in a March 10 statement to The Smithfield Times, contended a convention would benefit Brewer.

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. The state bears the cost of operating polling sites.

Conventions, on the other hand, are party-funded and held at a specific place and time, not necessarily coinciding with the primary races. A convention is scheduled for June 3 at Paul D. Camp Community College’s Franklin campus.

Boyer called two witnesses: Jones herself and Sadler’s senior political adviser, Carey Allen.

Allen testified she’d received Beals’ initial March 9 notice listing a primary for the 17th around 6:40 p.m. that day, and learned at 445 p.m. on March 10 that a new letter listed a change for the district. She said she tried calling Beals twice but could only reach Beals’ voicemail, and later was able to reach the state Republican Party’s general counsel, Chris Marston, who told her Beals was having “a very bad day” that included pressuring by Youngkin’s chief of staff and the Attorney General’s Office.

Cardwell allowed the testimony over Brown’s “hearsay” objection. Rules of evidence in trials typically prohibit witnesses from testifying as to what another person said, but those rules are “relaxed” for preliminary injunction hearings like this one, Boyer successfully argued.


Jones initially supported convention

An affidavit by state Republican Party Chairman Rich Anderson sheds light on the origins of the conflicting information to emerge from the state and candidates since March 1. Affidavits are written statements that can be used as evidence in court and require their authors swear under penalty of perjury that what they assert is true to the best of their knowledge.

Jones, speaking to the Times following the hearing, acknowledged that at the time of the December committee vote, she, as Suffolk’s then-chairwoman, supported a convention over a primary. At the time, Jones was serving both as chairwoman of Suffolk’s GOP chapter and chair of the 17th’s committee.

Suffolk and Isle of Wight County, Jones noted, were the only two localities to support a convention over a primary as of December. But the two, according to Anderson’s affidavit, carried a collective 62.5% weighted vote based on their Republican Party voting strength. Franklin and Southampton County form a single Republican Party chapter, resulting in nine committee members for the 10-locality body.

According to Anderson’s affidavit, the 2nd Congressional District Committee met Feb. 25 and appointed Steve Trent – a known Brewer supporter – as the Suffolk GOP’s new chairman.

The 2nd Congressional Committee is a body of all city- and county-level Republican Party chairs in U.S. Rep. Jen Kiggans’ district, which shares some of the same jurisdictions as the state-level 17th Senate District.

According to the Virginia Republican “Party Plan,” a bylaws document, congressional district committees have the authority to replace a local Republican Party chapter’s chair if it determines the local unit or its current chair has “failed to function.”

A March 1 statement on the Suffolk GOP’s Facebook page by Jones, who identified herself as the Suffolk GOP’s “rightful chair,” also made reference to an alleged effort by the GOP’s 2nd Congressional District Legislative Committee to “dissolve” the Suffolk chapter on grounds that the unit had become “dysfunctional,” though Jones characterized the move as “intimidation tactics” to “suppress conservative members.”

Trent had given Brewer a $500 donation in December, according to Brewer’s campaign finance reports. The 2nd Congressional District has also 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.

Since Suffolk, at 34%, has the largest weighted vote of the 10 localities, Suffolk’s GOP chairman would have “control over the mass meeting” at a convention and could decide “who can vote,” Sadler contended in a March 10 email to the Times.


An invalid vote?

The 17th’s committee revoted on March 1, this time with Jones voting on behalf of Suffolk to support a primary over a convention. Brown acknowledged at the March 27 hearing that Jones was officially still chairwoman of the 17th’s committee, even though she’d been ousted as the Suffolk GOP chair and should have had non-voting status.

According to Anderson’s affidavit, Trent was also present but Jones “ignored” him, at which point he and “other members whose presence was required to establish a quorum” left the meeting.

When Jones, at 6:46 p.m. on March 1, submitted the committee’s vote for a primary to the Virginia Department of Elections, she was doing so “ultra vires,” or beyond her authority, Anderson’s affidavit contends.

Sadler issued a statement March 1 announcing that his race had changed from a convention to a primary as a result of the meeting. The state Republican Party issued its own statement on March 2 contending the vote to be invalid due to lacking sufficient members to form a quorum.

Anderson’s affidavit further contends over three-fourths of the 17th’s committee met again on March 4 for the purpose of ousting Jones as committee chair. The Party Plan, according to Anderson, requires a two-thirds majority vote and that the party give Jones 30 days to appeal.

Beals, in an affidavit, stated that when she received Jones’ online submittal indicating the 17th’s committee had chosen a primary, the notice “did not facially give any reason” for her to question whether the vote had been valid.

On March 7, the deadline for committee chairs to submit their notifications to the state, Beals stated in her affidavit that she received a one-page letter from Anderson asserting that the 17th’s committee “did not adopt a direct primary as the method of nomination.”

A day later, she wrote back asking Anderson to clarify his assertion that the March 1 vote had not been by a “duly constituted authority,” the standard set in state law.

Around the same time she received Anderson’s eight-page response on March 9, she’d already issued her March 9 letter to local electoral boards listing Republican primaries for the 27 state Senate races, including the 17th, Beals’ affidavit states. She then states she made the decision to issue a “corrected” order by the close of business on March 10.

At the March 23 hearing, Brown painted Jones as having “gone rogue.”

Boyer, however, argued that since state law designates to the district committee chair – and none other – the responsibility of informing the Department of Elections of any vote to hold a primary, Jones’ online submittal should be considered valid, since she, at all times during this process, has remained the committee’s chairwoman.

Not acting on Jones’ notice would cause “irreparable harm,” Boyer argued, citing the impending April 6 deadline for candidates running in a primary to submit their paperwork to get their names on the ballot. He also characterized as an “existential threat” the idea of allowing pressure by the governor or attorney general’s office to influence the candidate nomination process of a political party, and could open the door to interference by Youngkin and Miyares in the Democratic Party as well.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with the contents of affidavits filed by Susan Beals and Republican Party Chairman Rich Anderson.