Northern Virginia Democrats are utilizing a nominating tactic more commonly associated with state Republicans to choose the party's nominee in a nationally targeted district.
Seeking to bolster its chances at winning the open 10th District seat, the local party decided last weekend to choose a nominee by convention rather than a primary. The rare move limits the number of people who will decide the party's general election candidate and moves up the nomination process by nearly two months.
Party leaders in Virginia’s 10th Congressional District Democratic Committee hope the earlier date and limited universe of voters will allow their eventual nominee to avoid a costly primary and instead focus on the November general.
“Our committee had a very thoughtful conversation about this, and we just feel very strongly that we need a nominee as soon as possible, and we need to help our eventual nominee conserve resources,” said Charlie Jackson, chairman of Virginia’s 10th District Democratic Party. “Whoever our nominee is can conserve those resources so we spend them in a general election and not against ourselves.”
Conserving resources for the general will be paramount in the 10th, which has been held by retiring Rep. Frank R. Wolf, R-Va., for more than three decades. The suburban and exurban district resides within the Washington, D.C., media market, where TV airtime comes at a premium.
A number of Democrats are vying for the seat, and more could enter before the March 27 filing deadline. But local and national Democratic operatives are coalescing around Fairfax County Commissioner John Foust. Those operatives say that holding a convention in early spring — rather than the regularly scheduled June 10 primary — will give Foust the best shot against whoever emerges from the GOP field.
Foust, who entered the race a week before Wolf's Dec. 17 retirement announcement, raised $217,000 in the fourth quarter. He far outpaced two other Democrats in the race, attorney Richard Bolger and architect Sam Kubba.
“I think if you saw a number of folks running for this seat and they were viewed to be competitive and had strong candidacies, I imagine a primary would have been picked,” said one local Democratic operative. “But the way this is shaking up, that’s not the case at all, so I think they probably chose to do this to get their nominee in hand sooner and let that person start fundraising.”
The multi-step convention process entails candidates gathering up delegates at local caucuses to later attend a district-wide convention to determine the nominee. While it can be challenging at an organizational level, it is not as costly as a primary, in which candidates have to spread their message to a wider audience, often through the use of TV and mail.
On the Republican side, the party quickly rallied behind state Del. Barbara Comstock, a former Wolf aide and consultant to Romney's 2012 campaign. She is currently the only Republican in the race, but fellow state Del. Bob Marshall, a socially conservative lawmaker who has run statewide, is also eyeing a bid.
The nominating convention has been a Republican hallmark in Virginia, something the party has used interchangeably with a primary depending on the race. Since they often invite the more conservative wing of the party, conventions have in recent years kept more moderate candidates like former Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling and former Rep. Tom Davis from seeking higher office.
Last year, after Bolling opted against challenging then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli for the gubernatorial nomination at the convention, E.W. Jackson, an unknown pastor with a history of making controversial comments, won a longshot bid to become the party's nominee for lieutenant governor. Jackson’s candidacy became a distraction for Republicans, who were swept in statewide races.
Fears of a similar situation unfolding in the 10th District led the local Republican committee to abandon the traditional convention route and instead opt for a “firehouse primary." In that scenario, the state party will run a primary on April 26 in locations throughout the district, opening up the process to a broader base of voters.
Virginia’s 10th District is rated a Lean Republican contest by Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call.