Outside The Meadow Event Park in Doswell on Saturday, the line of snaking cars carrying delegates coming to vote in the GOP’s state convention easily topped 100 — a flow that held steady for hours.
It was one of 39 voting locations where Virginia Republicans cast ballots in the bitter and crowded nominating contests that will determine the party’s statewide ballot — most importantly, its nominee for governor.
Turnout estimates were in flux Saturday afternoon, but a whopping 54,000 delegates had signed up to weigh in on the race. While in Doswell and Annandale they did so at drive-thru polling places, in Colonial Heights and in Henrico County voters cast their ballots on foot.
It will be days until the party declares a winner in the contest for governor — a tedious process of hand counting that will begin Sunday afternoon in Richmond. Boxes carrying the paper ballots had started to arrive at a Richmond hotel Saturday evening, with more boxes expected through the next morning from polling places as far away as Tangier Island.
The party’s candidates for governor on the ballot Saturday were Sen. Amanda Chase of Chesterfield, Del. Kirk Cox of Colonial Heights, former Pentagon official Sergio de la Peña, former think-tank CEO Peter Doran, former Roanoke Sheriff Octavia Johnson, entrepreneur Pete Snyder and former private equity CEO Glenn Youngkin.
Delegates also chose among six candidates for lieutenant governor and four vying for attorney general.
The party is using a ranked-choice system in which convention delegates listed the candidates for each office in order of preference. When the votes are tabulated, the candidate with the fewest votes in each round of counting will be eliminated, and each delegate’s vote for that candidate will be doled out to the delegate’s next choice, until any one candidate has more than 50% of the vote.
In Doswell on Saturday morning, Nancy Hilliard was still vacillating between two candidates for governor. “I flip-flop between Youngkin and Chase,” she said as she waited to vote in her car. “I think Chase is the true conservative, but I like Youngkin and I think he can win.”
Hilliard, of Essex County, said Snyder was her third choice.
Matt Luther, from New Kent County, said Snyder had his top spot among a field of good choices. “I like ’em all,” he said, adding that Snyder is “good and solid.”
Snyder made stops Saturday in Madison County, Lynchburg and Charlottesville.
“We feel confident where we stand right now,” he told supporters Saturday night in Charlottesville, according to his campaign’s transcript of his remarks on his Twitter feed. “The vote hasn’t been counted yet ... make it fair, make it transparent. But guess what? I think we all know what the outcome is going to be.”
Down in Colonial Heights, at a smaller polling location, Cox’s local connections showed. Jonathan Lowe, who lives in Chester, said the former speaker of the House and 30-year delegate “has a proven record. I’ve seen his conservative views and values.”
Frank and Nancy McDaniel said they’ve known Cox for 27 years as a “good, Christian man.”
In Fairfax County on Saturday morning, long lines of cars snaking through the parking lot of Northern Virginia Community College came as a welcome sign to Youngkin, who voted at the college’s Annandale campus in the party’s unusual “unassembled” convention.
With an estimated 17,000 delegates pledged to support him, Youngkin said the contentious nomination method benefits Republicans by boosting participation.
“Not everyone will vote today, but I think we’re going to see a huge turnout,” he said in brief comments to reporters after voting from the back seat of a metallic gray Lexus on a chilly, overcast morning.
Whatever the ultimate turnout, it will pale compared with the 300,000 or 400,000 voters who might have participated in a statewide GOP primary.
The party's nomination fight for governor featured bitter attacks and hefty spending from shadowy, untraceable political groups. Glossy mailers with creative photo editing ridiculing one candidate or another filled the mailboxes of registered delegates throughout the race.
Virginia education became a key focus in the race, particularly toward the end. Snyder focused on protesting school closures due to COVID-19, while Youngkin and Cox in recent weeks decried teaching about systemic racism and preliminary proposals at the state level to rework the math curriculum.
Republicans throughout the race have also questioned the security of state and national elections in a contest that was heavily dominated by the legacy of former President Donald Trump. To varying degrees, all of the GOP candidates expressed support for the former president, and only one, Cox, has said President Joe Biden was duly elected.
Friction among Republican candidates was evident during early voting in Fairfax on Saturday. A man in a yellow chicken suit paraded along the line of vehicles with a handmade sign that asked: “Why is Glenn Youngkin afraid of the NRA?”
The man said he was not part of any campaign, but two Youngkin workers walking on either side of him said the man was working for the Snyder campaign.
For all of the intraparty animosity that bubbled up during the race, Republicans are unified behind one goal: seeing a Republican move into the Executive Mansion. Virginians have not elected a Republican candidate statewide since 2009; and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, the apparent front-runner for the Democratic nomination, has already won once, on his second try.
Democrats will nominate their candidate in a June 8 primary. McAuliffe wants to succeed Gov. Ralph Northam, the Democrat who followed him four years ago and who has endorsed McAuliffe. Northam has presided over a state response to the COVID-19 pandemic that Republicans are attacking with gusto in their convention fight.
“We’re coming together around the fact that we can’t afford another term by the McAuliffe-Northam administration,” Youngkin said. “I think everyone is just fed up.”
At his polling place in Colonial Heights, Cox said his House district has the largest share of voters who lean Democrat of any held by a Republican in the legislature — a sign that he is the candidate who can beat McAuliffe.
“A lot of candidates will tell you they can win statewide, will tell you they can do well in tougher areas for Republicans. I’ve actually done that,” said Cox, who was re-elected in 2019 but lost the speakership as a string of GOP losses elsewhere gave Democrats the House majority.
Cox and Chase intersected Saturday at the same polling location in Colonial Heights, but went their separate ways without greeting each other.
Chase, who voted in Chesterfield County, said she hopes to see the party unified behind a Republican for governor to beat McAuliffe, but reiterated that she feels the Republican establishment has “rigged” the process in favor of Snyder.
Asked if she still plans to run as an independent if Snyder becomes the nominee, Chase said: “I don’t want to run as an independent. I’m a Republican. But I’m also for election integrity.”
Chase had urged her supporters to list her as their preference up and down the ballot. In Doswell, Major Mansfield of Hanover County said Chase is “pro-life, pro-Second Amendment and pro-Constitution.” Asked who his second choice would be, Mansfield said: “Amanda, Amanda, Amanda!”
Under party rules, a candidate will receive only one vote per ballot. If a voter lists a first place choice in subsequent spots as well, only the first place vote will count.
Despite the chaotic process that preceded Saturday’s events, the day seemed to end without major complaints.
In Colonial Heights, Brandon Howard, the president of the group Right to Bear Arms Virginia, complained he was forced to vote curbside after trying to walk into the polling location while openly carrying two handguns. Howard complained the incident went against the values of the Republican Party.
Republican Party Chairman Rich Anderson said that aside from sporadic complaints, “I’ve heard that it went very well.”
He added: “I don’t have a full picture tonight. I’ve gotten reports of very minor things — waiting a while to vote — but I haven’t heard of any breakdowns in procedure, violations of rules.”