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A Richmond Circuit Court judge on Monday heard arguments in an emergency injunction seeking to order the Virginia Department of Elections to place the names of the two candidates vying for the GOP nomination in the newly created 17th state Senate district on a primary ballot.
Dawn Jones, the chairman of the district’s Republican Legislative Committee, filed the motion earlier this month after state election officials changed the nomination method from a state-run primary to a convention. Judge Claire Cardwell is now weighing whether to approve or reject the motion, with a ruling on the injunction likely coming by the end of Wednesday, as the April 6 deadline for primary filings nears.
Jones also filed a suit against the department and the State Board of Elections, alleging that the agencies meddled in internal party affairs and made the change under pressure from Gov. Glenn Youngkin and Attorney General Jason Miyares after initially confirming the district committee’s decision to settle the nomination contest during a primary.
But Cal Brown, an assistant attorney general who argued on behalf of the state, tried to paint Jones as a “low-level party official who has gone rogue” and who lacked the authority to make critical decisions — such as determining the method of nomination in the district. “All she has is procedural responsibilities. She is just the messenger,” Brown said in court.
The 17th District, which was approved by the Virginia Supreme Court in December 2021, includes all of Isle of Wight, Southampton, Greenville and Brunswick counties, the cities of Suffolk, Franklin and Emporia, and parts of Portsmouth and Dinwiddie County.
Two Republicans are seeking their party’s nomination: Hermie Sadler, a former NASCAR driver and entrepreneur from Emporia, and Del. Emily Brewer, R-Suffolk, who announced in early 2022 that she would retire from her House of Delegates seat to run for the state Senate.
Jones alleges that Youngkin strong-armed election officials into ordering a convention because he believes that Brewer — the candidate he considers to be more electable in November’s general election — would have a better chance at winning at a party-run nomination contest. The convention is now scheduled for June 3 at Paul D. Camp Community College in Franklin.
Jones is basing her suit on a state law mandating that during an election year, each district committee must certify to the State Board of Elections by March 7 that it has selected a particular nomination method. Under the law, the committee’s decision is legally binding and cannot be changed by a government agency.
On Monday, Jones told the court that she certified her committee’s decision to hold a primary after a meeting on March 1, and that she received a confirmation electronically later that day that the nomination method had been accepted.
Carey Allen, a senior political adviser for Sadler, testified that she talked to Susan Beals, the commissioner of the Department of Elections, on March 9 to confirm the nomination method. “She told me that she had selected a primary, and she sent a writ that evening.”
Allen said that when she checked the agency’s website the following day at around noon, it listed a primary as the district’s nomination method. But later that day, Allen said, she was notified that the primary had been canceled and a convention had been ordered. “I tried to call Susan twice, but it went to voicemail both times,” she said.
Allen said that she later learned from a Republican official that Beals “had had a bad day” after receiving communications from Jeff Goettman, Youngkin’s chief of staff, insisting she rescind the primary decision.
Brown, the assistant attorney general, said that the 17th District legislative committee had initially voted at a meeting in December to hold a convention. He noted that on Feb. 25, Jones had been removed from the Suffolk Republican Committee because the state party had deemed it defunct — a decision that Jones appealed last week. “But I am still the chair of the 17th District committee while the appeal is pending,” Jones told the court.
Brown also questioned Jones’ legal standing for bringing the suit in the first place since it contradicted a letter from Rich Anderson, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, to election officials in which he informed them that “a low-level official has gone rogue” and asked them to rescind the primary decision and order a convention.
“The plaintiff has no standing, and the court has no jurisdiction over this case,” Brown said. “Certainly the General Assembly did not intend to give the messenger the power of the designation of a primary over a convention.”
Rick Boyer, the Lynchburg attorney who filed the suit on the behalf of Jones, cited state law requiring the district committee chair to certify a nomination method. The Department of Elections and the State Board of Elections, Boyer said, have a “non-discretionary role” that mandates they abide by the committee’s decision.
The same applies to Anderson, Boyer said. “The state party chairman has no authority to weigh in. The statute doesn’t allow the RPV chair veto power. The only chairman who has any authority in this matter is Mrs. Jones.”
Boyer also said that aside from violating state law, the administration’s push to overrule the committee’s decision to hold a primary also violated the First Amendment’s protection of free speech, assembly and petition. The latter extends to include a freedom of association — the “final nail in the coffin,” he said.
Cardwell in the coming days should not have to take “a deep dive into the inner workings of the Republican Party of Virginia,” Boyer said.
“I felt like she asked terrific questions from both counsels. The case hinges on how she views the question of Mrs. Jones’ standing and if she believes the Department of Elections has discretion,” he said in an interview after the hearing.
Correction, 5:54 p.m. March 27: The first name of Jeff Goettman, the governor’s chief of staff, was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.