84th House race changes to GOP primary following court ruling in Senate dispute

Published 1:38 pm Friday, March 31, 2023

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A Richmond judge’s ordering of a primary election to decide the Republican nominee for the state’s 17th Senate District appears to have also impacted a contested GOP race for the House of Delegates’ 84th District.

On March 30, one day after Circuit Court Judge Claire Cardwell found in favor of an ousted GOP official’s lawsuit, the Virginia Department of Elections issued a revised order setting June 20 Republican primaries for 59 House races and 27 Senate races, among them the 17th Senate District and the 84th House District.

The March 30 order is identical to a March 9 letter Department of Elections Commissioner Susan Beals issued to local electoral boards. On March 10, however, Beals had issued an altered version of her letter, which set primaries for only 58 House races and 26 Senate races, the 84th and 17th no longer among them.

Dawn Jones, whom Republican Party officials ousted as Suffolk’s GOP chairwoman in February, filed a lawsuit on March 16 alleging Gov. Glenn Youngkin, Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares and other “high-ranking” party officials “working to support” one candidate over the other in the 17th’s race had unlawfully pressured Beals on March 10 to make the change.

Despite her ouster as Suffolk’s GOP chair, Jones remained chairwoman of the 17th’s Legislative District Committee, a body of city- and county-level party chairs tasked with deciding the method of nomination in contested races. A court filing by state Republican Party Chairman Rich Anderson in opposition to Jones’ claims had contended Jones, by virtue of her removal as Suffolk’s chair, should have held non-voting status in the 17th’s committee and had acted beyond her authority when she cast Suffolk’s vote on March 1 to change the voting method from a convention to a primary. 

Cardwell, however, ruled the March 10 change back to a convention was improper, finding that state law asserts once the chair of a district submits proper notice calling for a primary, the State Board of Elections has no discretion to do otherwise.

Mike Dillender, one of two candidates vying for the GOP nomination in the 84th, announced on March 30, just after 6 p.m., that his race had changed to a primary. His opponent, Rod Thompson, confirmed to The Smithfield Times on March 31 that he too had been notified of the change.

In the primary, polls will open to all voters, regardless of party affiliation, in each locality on June 20 from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. and voters will also have the option of voting early or by absentee ballots, with the state and localities bearing the costs of operating polling sites. Candidates running in a primary have until 5 p.m. April 6 to file the paperwork to get their names on the ballot. Early voting begins May 5 and continues through June 17, excluding Memorial Day. Conventions are party-funded and held at a specific place and time, not necessarily coinciding with primary races. 

Prior to the judge ordering a primary, the 17th’s convention was scheduled for June 3 at Paul D. Camp Community College’s Franklin campus, and the 84th’s convention was set for June 17 at the Windsor Town Center. To cast ballots, voters would have had to register as convention delegates and travel to the designated sites. The total number of delegates per locality and weighted vote of each delegate would have been capped based on each locality’s Republican Party voting strength.

“This change means that you will be able to vote for our Republican nominee without having to jump any hurdles or obstacles,” Dillender said in his press release. “Rather than having to fill out a form and register as a voting delegate, you can simply show up and vote for the nominee on election day at your local voting precinct.”

According to Thompson, the latest order setting a primary is the fourth time since December the 84th’s method of nomination has changed.

“This entire debacle is a shining example of why people are losing faith in the electoral system. … I can’t imagine cheering when the voters are confused and have no idea what is going on,” Thompson said.

Jones’ attorney, Rick Boyer, had told the Times on March 28 that as of that date he didn’t believe Cardwell’s then-pending order would affect the 84th, since no one from that district had filed suit over the March 10 change. He further denied having reason to believe the 84th’s March 10 change from a primary to convention was tied to Youngkin, Miyares or Republican Party officials supporting one candidate over the other in the 84th race.

“I imagine there is some interest somewhere given that the 84th also seems affected, but I could only speculate as to what the interest might be,” Boyer said.

In the 17th, Del. Emily Brewer, R-Isle of Wight, is running for the Republican nomination against Hermie Sadler of Emporia. The new district, created in 2021 based on the 2020 Census, encompasses 10 localities, including Isle of Wight County and Suffolk. The Brewer-Sadler winner is expected to face state Del. Clinton Jenkins, D-Suffolk, who so far is unopposed for his party’s nomination.

The 84th, also created from 2021 redistricting, spans the Isle of Wight-Suffolk border and includes the city of Franklin and a small area of Chesapeake. Suffolk accounts for roughly 77% of the district’s registered voters.

According to Anderson’s court filing, Republican Party officials met Feb. 25 and appointed Steve Trent – a Brewer supporter – in Jones’ place as Suffolk GOP chairman. Trent gave Brewer a $500 donation in December, according to campaign finance reports. Campaign finance reports for the two 84th District candidates and the two 17th District candidates show no reportable contributions from Jones of $100 or more.

Sadler, in a March 10 email to the Times, contended that since Suffolk, at 34%, holds the largest weighted vote of the 10 localities, Suffolk’s GOP chairman would have “control over the mass meeting” at a convention and could decide “who can vote.”

Trent had previously given Dillender $250 in 2021 when Dillender ran unsuccessfully for the 76th House District against Jenkins, according to Dillender’s campaign finance reports. Dillender also received over $16,000 in non-monetary contributions from the Republican Party of Virginia that year. To date, neither Trent nor the Republican Party has contributed any reportable donation of $100 or more to either Dillender or Thompson for the 2023 election cycle.

According to Anderson’s court filing, the “designee chair” of the 84th’s Legislative District Committee called a Feb. 28 meeting but “did not identify a change in nomination method as the subject of the meeting in violation of the Party Plan.” The Party Plan serves as the state-level bylaws document for the Republican Party.

At that meeting, with Suffolk carrying 69% of the district’s weighted vote, the “designee chair conducted a meeting of one attendee (himself) and without any authorization … improperly voted to change the decision of the duly constituted 84th Committee on December 29 from convention to primary,” Anderson contends. The filing is unclear as to whom Anderson is referring to as the “designee chair,” other than that, given the use of the word “himself,” Anderson likely isn’t referring to Jones. Anderson did not immediately respond to the Times’ request for comments.

Following a March 2 committee meeting, the chair notified the Department of Elections that the committee had decided to nominate by primary, Anderson contends. On March 8, Anderson alleges, the 84th’s committee met again by call of Trent, and resulted in Trent’s voting on behalf of Suffolk to “disaffirm” the action taken at the March 2 meeting, and reaffirm the Dec. 29 decision to nominate by convention.

The Dillender-Thompson winner is expected to face either Nadarius Clark of Suffolk or Michele Joyce of Smithfield in November. Clark and Joyce are vying in a June 20 Democratic primary for that party’s nomination.