(CNN)As Virginia Republicans try to win their first race for governor in more than a decade, the party is selecting their standardbearer this weekend — a decision that will suggest where the national party is heading as it seeks to gain back power in Washington after former President Donald Trump’s defeat in November.
The nomination for governor remains wide open as more than 50,000 delegates headed to what the state party calls an “unassembled” convention on Saturday, meeting at 39 locations across the state as necessitated by Covid-19 restrictions.
At one site, in Fairfax County in suburban Northern Virginia, a steady line of cars snaked through the parking lot of a community college for most of the day. Delegates waited to collect, fill out and return their ballots — all without needing to leave their vehicles.
The “drive-in” process is unusual for a Republican nominating convention, and there were a few signs of confusion from delegates about how to cast their ballots. Volunteers at the Fairfax County site at times struggled to direct delegates’ cars to the proper lane for turning in their filled ballots. For some drivers, the entire exercise — from getting in line to casting a ballot — took around one hour.
Four of the seven gubernatorial candidates are considered those most likely to win the nomination and challenge the Democratic nominee this November. But with the party using a ranked-choice voting method that requires the winner to receive 50% of the vote, there remains no clear favorite.
Among the top GOP candidates are businessmen Glenn Youngkin and Pete Snyder, both of whom have led the field in campaign spending — chiefly on ads going after each other as competing “outsider” candidates. Former state assembly speaker Kirk Cox has the most experience in elected office and, along with Snyder, has the most establishment support. And state Sen. Amanda Chase, a pro-Trump gadfly who revels in being known as a “firebrand” and “politically incorrect,” has a small, loyal following.
The field also includes former think tank executive Peter Doran, former Roanoke sheriff Octavia Johnson and retired Army Col. Sergio de la Peña — all minor candidates.
At the Fairfax County site, Stephanie Myers of Alexandria, a first-time delegate, told CNN she had been leaning toward Cox because she liked his decades of experience in the state assembly but that she had been convinced to give her top spot to Youngkin after hearing him speak to voters in Alexandria on Friday.
“He had all the positive qualities of Donald Trump,” Myers said of Youngkin, a former executive at the Carlyle Group, “and none of the negative qualities.”
Myers said she would list Cox as her second choice.
This year’s race to replace Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, who is prevented by Virginia’s one-term limit from seeking re-election, will be seen as a test of the nation’s political climate nearly one year into Joe Biden’s presidency.
Virginia law allows parties to choose between selecting their nominees for statewide offices in party-run conventions or in state-run primaries. Democrats are holding a primary on June 8, where former Gov. Terry McAuliffe is among the leading candidates. The leftward shift of Virginia’s suburbs around Washington, DC — a trend vividly on display in Northam’s 2017 victory and in recent Democratic presidential wins in the state — is likely to make Democrats the favorites to hold the governor’s office in Richmond.
Despite this shift and the uncertainty about who the GOP nominee will be, observers say the Virginia party has an opportunity this year to win in a state that has frustrated Republicans for years.
“Republicans are poised for a massive comeback in legislative races as long as Donald Trump stays off the headlines,” said Chris Saxman, a former Republican state delegate who writes a political newsletter.
Saxman and others say Re
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