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Now comes the fight to make Virginia's primary ballot
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Now comes the fight to make Virginia's primary ballot

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Now that Virginia is set for a March 1 presidential primary, a new scramble starts — to qualify for the ballot in this vital swing state.

Newly official presidential candidates Jim Webb and Chris Christie and the 20 other 2016 hopefuls will have to amass 5,000 valid signatures — at least 200 in each of the state’s 11 congressional districts — to make the Virginia ballot.

State lawmakers cut the signature requirement in half after the 2012 debacle in which only former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas qualified for Virginia’s Republican primary.

Virginia’s signature requirement still ranks with Indiana and Illinois as one of the three toughest in the country, says Richard Winger, publisher of Ballot Access News, a newsletter based in San Francisco.

“In the majority of states that have presidential primaries, if (candidates) are discussed in the news media, they go on (the ballot) automatically,” Winger said.

Virginia officials have made another significant change that will make it a bit easier for candidates to qualify for the 2016 primary. This time, people who gather signatures for presidential candidates no longer have to be Virginia residents.

Winnowing process

With New Jersey Gov. Christie’s announcement Tuesday, 14 prominent Republicans officially are running for president — with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Ohio Gov. John Kasich set to join the field this month.

While former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton dominates the Democratic field, she has competition from Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.; former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley; Lincoln Chafee, the former Rhode Island senator and governor; and Webb, the former senator from Virginia who announced his candidacy Thursday.

It’s unlikely that a dozen or more candidates still will be standing by the time of the Virginia primary. February contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada are sure to winnow the field.

Larry Sabato, head of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said televised debates that begin in August might weaken several candidates enough to force them out quickly, far ahead of the first voting.

“If you can’t even get on the debate stage, some of your financial backers and campaign volunteers will lose enthusiasm fast,” he said.

John Whitbeck, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, notes that he will be responsible for vetting the GOP candidates’ ballot petitions, “so it would be a big no-no for us to favor one candidate over the other” in the primary.

“They are going to have to be responsible themselves,” he said. That said, it is important to the state GOP that voters have a choice in March, he said.

“If we had five candidates on the ballot in March, that would be a lot. That’s a substantial number considering we only had two in 2012.”

Many who opposed a 2016 primary at the recent state party meeting in Staunton, where the GOP settled on its nominating process, were upset at their lack of choice in 2012, Whitbeck said.

“To make a successful case for a primary, you need to have a lot of candidates on the ballot to give Republican voters choices,” he said. “If you are a legitimate candidate, you can build the infrastructure.”

Virginia Democrats also make it clear that the campaigns are on their own.

“The party itself does not collect signatures on behalf of a candidate,” said Morgan Finkelstein, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Party of Virginia. On its website, the party will provide procedural guidance that will be available to all candidates.

Petition rule

Ahead of Virginia’s 2012 primary, four GOP presidential hopefuls — then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry, joined by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, challenged the state law that says the person who circulates ballot petitions must be a Virginia resident.

The candidates said in federal court that the residency restriction prevented them from gathering enough signatures to qualify for Virginia’s primary ballot.

U.S. District Judge John A. Gibney Jr. agreed with Perry’s contention that the requirement was unconstitutional. But the judge said Perry had filed the suit too late.

Months later, the ACLU of Virginia represented the Libertarian Party of Virginia in a challenge to a similar state law on ballot access for minor-party candidates.

The court agreed with the ACLU that the Virginia residency requirement for people circulating petitions on behalf of minor-party candidates was unconstitutional, noted Rebecca Glenberg, the Virginia ACLU’s legal director.

While the ruling directly affects only minor-party candidates, “the reasoning of the decision would be the same for major-party primary candidates,” Glenberg said.

“The Board of Elections appears to recognize this, because the petition form for 2016 primary candidates states that the circulator must be a legal resident of the United States, not a legal resident of Virginia.”

Degree of difficulty

The reduced signature requirement and the change on who can circulate petitions “will make it immensely easier for candidates to access the ballot,” said Tucker Martin, the former communications director for Gov. Bob McDonnell who now is aiding Christie’s presidential bid.

“But heck, even under the old rules, Alan Keyes was able to get on the ballot in 2000, so it’s not like the system was that exceedingly difficult to manage in the first place,” said Martin, an adviser for strategy and communication with America Leads, a super PAC that supports Christie.

Keyes, a conservative who has made multiple runs for president and for the U.S. Senate, finished a distant third in Virginia’s 2000 Republican primary behind then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

Webb, who was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2006, met what then was a higher hurdle to get on the ballot in Virginia. But it’s a harder task when candidates run for president and must organize in multiple states simultaneously.

“Other than well-funded candidates, ballot compliance always has been and always will be a struggle,” said Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, a veteran Virginia Democratic operative who is a friend of Webb and a supporter of his presidential bid.

“In most cases, candidates tend to drop all their resources into the early states and try to get a ticket out,” Saunders said. He added that “getting on the ballot in every state is an expensive proposition.”

Saunders believes Virginia’s revised ballot-access rules will make a difference and says it’s likely the state’s primary ballot will feature at least one candidate who already will have dropped out of the contest by March 1.

In 2008, Romney, former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani made Virginia’s Republican primary ballot and received thousands of votes, though they had suspended their campaigns before Virginians went to the polls.

Super Tuesday

On March 1, Virginians apparently will vote on the same day as multiple other Southern states. Opinions differ as to whether that will dilute Virginia’s influence on Super Tuesday.

But pundits and political professionals in both parties say the candidates know Virginia is an important swing state in the general election and will want to make an impression ahead of November.

Virginia, along with Florida and Ohio, “will be one of the three states that decides who the next president will be, so that importance will have a gravitational pull on candidates who have the resources and are serious about going all the way,” said Quentin Kidd, a political analyst at Christopher Newport University.

Martin, the former McDonnell aide, said the case can be made that Virginia’s primary will be significant no matter how many other states vote March 1.

“Campaigns know that to win in November, they have to win Virginia. So a primary gives them a great head start on organizing and messaging in a pivotal state,” he said.

“They will want to be here,” he said of GOP hopefuls. “And they will all know what a Virginia win will mean: a demonstration that their message works with Republicans and other interested voters in a highly competitive state.”

The parties’ role

As Whitbeck, the Virginia GOP chairman, noted, the state parties will play an important role in verifying that candidates have enough valid signatures to qualify for the primary ballot. It’s not a sure thing.

Ahead of Virginia’s 2012 Republican primary, Gingrich submitted more than the 10,000 signatures that were then required. But 1,500 of them were deemed invalid.

David Rexrode, then-executive director for the Republican Party of Virginia, said Gingrich’s campaign submitted such names as Jack Daniels, Jim Beam “and the entire cast of ‘Mad Men.’”

acain@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6645

Twitter: @AndrewCainRTD

Staff writer Markus Schmidt contributed to this report.

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