Primary v convention 2016: Practical, logistical concerns for Fairfax County Republicans

By Matthew C. Ames
Chairman, Fairfax County Republican Committee
Guest Post

My concerns are based entirely on practical considerations arising out of Fairfax County’s size and past practice, and are not intended to address the advantages or disadvantages of conventions vs. primaries.  I have a number of questions regarding the practical effects in Fairfax County if the SCC chooses a convention, which as far as I know have not been addressed.  In this regard, I believe my perspective differs from that of most of your correspondents on this issue.

Here is a summary of my letter [included below]:

  • With over 700,000 registered voters and 238 precincts, Fairfax County represents one in seven Virginia voters.
  • Because of our size, we have developed practices in the past that would need to be substantially altered if the RPV moves its convention to mid-March.
  • Any method adopted by the RPV must be able to accommodate both the largest and the smallest units.
  • We have historically held our County convention to elect the County chairman and conduct other party business in late March, which gives us about 90 days to plan and organize the convention after the holidays.
  • Holding the RPV Convention on March 19 will force us to move our convention to mid- to late-February, and cut our planning time in half, unless we start during the holidays.
  • We have a general election on November 3.  We cannot afford any distractions before then, and because of Virginia’s unique election cycle, the only down time our volunteers will have is between Election Day and New Year’s.
  • It seems likely that interest in the process, and therefore in our convention, will be much higher than in other years.  I have seen no estimates of how many delegates are likely to attend our County convention under the March 19 convention proposal.  Without knowing that number, the FCRC cannot plan appropriately.  Without knowing that number with some degree of certainty, I think it would be irresponsible for the State Central Committee to approve a mid-March convention process.
  • If the potential number of delegates to our convention is large enough – in excess of 2500 or 3000 — there may not be a venue in the County that is large enough to accommodate our convention.  The Patriot Center at George Mason University is unlikely to be an option, if only for reasons of cost.
  • As far as I know, RPV has not taken any of these concerns into consideration at this point.

Letter to John Whitbeck, Chairman, Republican Party of Virginia

Dear Chairman Whitbeck:

I write to urge that the State Central Committee (“SCC”) choose a primary as the method of binding delegates to the Republican National Convention in 2016. I have no desire to wade into the treacherous waters of our party’s long-standing debate over nomination methods: my very strong preference for a primary in this instance is based not on the merits or demerits of any method in the abstract, but entirely on the impracticality of any other method for this specific purpose under existing conditions in Fairfax County. I think the reasonableness of my concerns is evident upon careful examination – at the very least, there are many unanswered questions that as far as I know the SCC has not considered.

As you know, I currently serve as Chairman of the Fairfax County Republican Committee (“FCRC”). I write today solely in my private capacity because, although I am confident that many FCRC members share my concerns, our committee has not formally discussed this question and I have no authority to speak for them on the matter. My views are informed, however, by substantial knowledge of how our committee has operated in recent years, and the limitations and capabilities of the FCRC as an organization.

I claim no knowledge of conditions in other units. The concerns outlined below may or may not apply elsewhere in Virginia. Indeed, the disparity in size between Fairfax County and other localities in the Commonwealth may make our situation unique. Nevertheless, precisely because of the County’s size, it is imperative that whatever method the SCC adopts for binding delegates is practical when applied in Fairfax County.

Before I get into the details of my concerns, let me make an additional point. I fully understand the desire to make Virginia relevant in the Presidential nominating contest. I am not certain, however, that due consideration has been given to one fundamental fact: Virginia’s unique election cycle. No other state, except for Mississippi, is conducting a general election in November. Party organizations and volunteers everywhere else will have ample time and opportunity to lay the groundwork for their delegate selection and binding processes in 2016. We in Virginia, on the other hand, are asking our grassroots volunteers and unit organizations to expend every ounce of energy they have between now and November 2015 to retain control of the Virginia Senate and hold our supermajority in the House of Delegates, not to mention to build our party’s bench at the local level. To then ask the same volunteers and local organizations to undertake a massive and critical new task, beginning essentially from scratch immediately after the general election, seems to me to place a great burden on our volunteer infrastructure. Not everything is possible or reasonable in this world, no matter how much we may desire it.

It is my understanding that the 2016 Nomination Process Committee (the “Process Committee”) that you established evaluated the practicality of using caucuses, canvasses or a convention method for binding delegates, in addition to a Presidential primary. Each of the first three methods raises similar concerns in my mind. Before examining the various methods, let me provide some context.


There are approximately 1.1 million residents, over 700,000 registered voters, and 238 voting precincts in Fairfax County. One in seven Virginia voters lives here. The sheer size of our population makes every process we undertake potentially unwieldy, and requires us to do careful planning, as illustrated by the discussion that follows.

Historical Practice in Fairfax County.

It is my understanding that, going back to approximately 1972, the FCRC has elected its chairman and conducted other business required by the party plan by means of a convention. That convention has generally been held in late March or April. In 2012, for example, we followed the following timeline:

  • December 2011 Convention location identified, call drafted.
  • January 2012: Draft convention call approved by FCRC executive committee; other planning commenced.
  • Feb. 6, 2012: Convention call adopted by County committee.
  • March 10, 2012: Delegate filing deadline.
  • March 24, 2012: County convention.
  • Mid-May 2012: Congressional district conventions.
  • June 16, 2012: RPV convention.

The calendar for 2013 and 2014 was essentially the same. You will note that this timeline allows us to devote our full attention to the election in November, and then provides for a decent interval to allow the leadership to plan, and volunteers to spend some time on matters ultimately more important to most of them than politics: the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s holidays. Even under this timeline some work must be done before the end of the year, because we need to identify and reserve a location for the County convention before the FCRC executive committee approves the draft call.

This calendar also allows us to appoint committees related to planning and conducting the County convention in January, so they can do the bulk of their work in February. In other words, for us to do the job right, we need about 90 days.

Logistical Factors in Fairfax County.

In 2012, over 1800 individuals submitted delegate filings for the County convention, the 8th, 10th or 11th Congressional District convention, or the RPV convention, or some combination, as part of our convention filing process. Of these, about 700 attended our County convention, which was comfortably accommodated in the gymnasium at West Springfield High School.

On the other hand, it is my understanding that in 1996, at the largest county convention ever held in Fairfax County, there were 2,900 delegates. The convention was held in the gymnasium at W. T. Woodson High School, which was then the largest gym in the County. The gym was completely full, with chairs on the floor up to the podium in addition to bleacher seating.

I do not know the maximum capacity of any of the gyms or other venues available in the County school system, but the largest high school in the County has an enrollment of about 2,800 so it seems unlikely that the capacity of any of them exceeds roughly
2,900. Average enrollment at our 22 high schools is about 2,200.

Specific Concerns Raised by the Three Non-Primary Methods

As you may have gathered from the background information provided above, I have two principal concerns about all three non-primary methods: the timeline for our local process in Fairfax County, and the availability of a suitable venue. As far as I know, the SCC has not examined either of these issues in any detail.

As I understand the various proposals, under the convention and canvass methods, local units would have to conduct their local processes in February, with either the RPV convention or the statewide canvasses being held in March. It is not clear to me how the caucus method would work. If the suggestion is that Fairfax County would hold a mass meeting to do all the work required, including election of the FCRC chairman and election of delegates, this is a great departure from our long-standing practice, as indicated above.

I will first examine the convention model in detail, since it is the most likely alternative to a primary.

Timing of the County Convention in the Event a State Convention Is Selected.

With respect to the calendar, as noted above, the FCRC has traditionally had about 90 days to plan and conduct its County convention. The convention option described in the Process Committee report, however, would impose a much different timeline. Allowing a minimum of one month between the County convention and the RPV convention would mean that our County convention would be held in mid-February, rather than late March. This pushes the whole planning cycle back, giving us effectively 45 days after the holidays to do what we have typically done in about 90. The timeline would probably look something like this:

  • December 2015: Draft convention call adopted by FCRC executive committee.
  • Jan. 6, 2016: Convention call adopted by County committee.
  • Feb. 6, 2016: Delegate filing deadline.
  • Feb. 20, 2016: County convention.
  • March 5, 2016: Congressional district conventions. [For nomination by method other than convention.]
  • March 19, 2016: RPV convention.
  • April/May 2016: Congressional district conventions. [For nomination by convention.]

This is a very compressed timeline, and extremely optimistic. Note that we would have only about six weeks for convention planning and delegate recruitment between adoption of the call and the County convention.

Note also that the window for the credentials committee to examine delegate filings is only two weeks; in the past, this has not been a major problem, although this period still has required very intense effort. In 2012, over 1800 individuals submitted delegate filings for the County convention, the 8th, 10th or 11th Congressional District convention, or the RPV convention, or some combination, as part of our convention filing process. All of these forms had to be reviewed by our credentials committee in just two weeks. In 2016, if Virginia is in play and there are five, six, or more active campaigns recruiting delegates, I have to assume there will be many thousands more delegate filings. If local units are to certify delegates, two weeks may not be enough to do a thorough and careful job.

With regard to the latter point, I understand that the Process Committee report proposes that many of the logistical tasks that the units have performed in the past – accepting delegate filings for the state convention being the chief among them – would be handled by RPV. I must say that, with all due respect to the RPV staff, this strikes me as potentially a massive undertaking, especially because the process will be new and most of the staff involved are likely to be new not just to the process but to RPV. The Committee report also proposes to task RPV with overseeing local processes in cases where there is concern about the unit’s ability to administer the process. I don’t think the FCRC would be one of those, but it is easy to propose such oversight in the abstract. In practical terms, what does that mean? How many local mass meetings would RPV be monitoring? In what space of time? Where will the staff come from? Who will train and monitor them?

The Committee report also proposes to provide training materials, regional training sessions, training at the Advance, and mandatory meetings with unit chairmen. This all has to be done in less than six months, when we have an election to win in November. Training materials and meetings cannot wait until December, if units have to implement procedures in February. People need time to plan. I cannot speak to how things would work in the rest of the Commonwealth, but between day jobs and family obligations surrounding the holidays, in my experience our volunteers have very little slack time after Election Day. And before Election Day, they will be fully engaged.

Finding a Location for the County Convention.

Giving as many as eight to ten campaigns the opportunity to recruit delegates in Fairfax County seems likely to generate substantial interest in our County convention. We have not needed to be concerned with electing delegates to the RPV convention at our convention for many years, because our delegate total has always been so high that we have not had overfilings. In 2014, for example, Fairfax County was allocated 6325 delegates and 6325 alternates to the RPV convention. But it seems to me that under the proposed system – if the new method is to have the desired result of attracting lots of candidates and therefore potential delegates – we have to assume that overfilings will be an issue. That also means that the campaigns will have strong incentives to make sure their delegates attend and get elected. I understand that the proposal in the Report provides for eliminating the possibility of slating by essentially eliminating the possibility of overfiling in the convention call and rules – but this presumes that the call and rules would indeed ultimately contain the necessary provisions. What if they do not? At this point, it seems to me that neither the Process Committee nor the SCC have examined the question thoroughly enough.

As noted above, there may be – may be – a few high school facilities in the County that can accommodate 2,900 or so delegates. Of course, that begs the question of whether such a venue would be available on the appointed date. The only venue in the County that immediately comes to mind as being of sufficient capacity is the Patriot Center at George Mason University, and I have no idea what it would cost or whether it would be available, either. I suspect that the cost of the Patriot Center would be prohibitive.

Frankly, I don’t see how the SCC can possibly adopt a convention as the method of binding delegates without knowing, with some certainty, (1) approximately how many people would be likely to attend a convention in Fairfax County under the proposed new rules; and (2) whether there is an adequate venue available in the County. Without solid answers to those two questions, nobody should vote for the convention option.

The same concerns – timing and location – apply to the caucus and canvass options. Here is a summary of some key concerns:

  • We will need to conduct a County convention to elect our chairman. The canvass option specifically calls for local processes in February. And a caucus in the form of a single mass meeting County-wide to perform all functions would be large and unwieldy, and we have no institutional experience running an event of that type.
  • The Committee Report suggested holding caucuses at the magisterial district level, to allow for securing adequate-sized venues, but finding nine locations to conduct caucuses during a single week presents its own challenge. The canvass options would also require multiple locations in the County, all on the same day. Based on our recent experience (the 10th CD canvass, the 34th HOD special election nomination canvass, and the Sully magisterial district canvass) we would be looking for 8 – 10 venues across the County.
  • Aside from finding locations, staffing multiple events, either on the same day or in short succession, poses an entirely separate challenge. If we have to conduct our own convention before or after the canvasses or caucuses, the manpower problem is further compounded.In short, neither option is viable in Fairfax County.


Our committee is fully engaged in this year’s election. We have some strong candidates on the ballot this year at all levels, and we believe we have some good opportunities to improve our position, but nearly every election in Fairfax County is a challenge for us. Election returns going back to 2008 and even before show that the County-wide electorate in Fairfax County is essentially 60% Democrat. We fight every day not just to hold the line, but to push our margins above 40% and into the mid-40s.We are keenly aware that victory state-wide depends in great part on those efforts – and nobody in the FCRC wants the slide towards the 70-30 margins in Arlington and Alexandria to continue. We need better data, more funding, and a stronger organization to pursue that effort. We also need time to recruit and train – and at the proper time, to rest and regroup.

Thank you for your leadership and your service to our Party. I hope this has been helpful, and that you will feel free to contact me with any questions.

Very truly yours,

Matthew C. Ames
Matthew C. Ames is chairman of the Fairfax County Republican Committee.

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One thought on “Primary v convention 2016: Practical, logistical concerns for Fairfax County Republicans

  1. […] Primary v convention 2016: Practical, logistical concerns for Fairfax County Republicans by Fairfax County Republican Committee Chairman Matt […]

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