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There was no controversy surrounding who would win Virginia’s final Republican mass meeting for a General Assembly nomination Saturday as incumbent Jason Ballard of Giles County received 91.7 percent of the 1,201 votes cast against opponent Jody Pyles.
The real debate of the day was whether the mass meeting should have even occurred in the first place.
“I voted against it [the mass meeting],” said chair of the Giles County Republican Committee Mae Midkiff. “I voted for a primary, but we were outvoted, so we didn’t get a choice. This is just totally uncalled for and out of the way. We still had to go through with it because there was no way to stop it.”
Midkiff was not the only disgruntled Republican at New River Community College’s Godbey Hall on the sunny Saturday afternoon. Ballard’s delegation, the remaining members of the Legislative District Committee and over 1,200 members of the 42nd District, some of whom spent over five hours enduring the 80-degree weather to stand in registration lines or crammed into the hall that had been prepared to handle only 700 people, all shared Midkiff’s sentiment.
“It’s like I’m being held hostage here to vote,” said 78-year-old Creed Patrick, a resident of Pulaski County who was concerned that the delayed process would affect his various health issues.
Registration opened up at 11 a.m. – though a few voters arrived as early as 8 – and was originally intended to wrap up at 12:30 p.m. in time for each candidate to give a speech no longer than five minutes before voting commenced. As the cutoff time edged closer, the end of the line did not move any closer to the front doors – continuing to stretch toward the full parking lot and past the Dough Dees food truck offering free ice cream cups sponsored by the Ballard campaign.
Despite the multitude of inconveniences, the meeting saw a record number of voters show up to cast their ballots – practically all for Ballard. Of the 1,201 total – 725 came from Giles, 239 from Pulaski, 125 from Montgomery and 112 hailed from Radford. And they made their thoughts known several times throughout the meeting, from chanting Ballard’s name while the meeting was at ease to continue registering the extensive number of voters to crying out “Let us vote” during one of the many delays. Eventually, Aidan Williams, communications advisor for the Giles County Republican Committee, called the meeting to order and attempted to soothe the audience’s rising tempers.
“This is the process that was chosen, it’s out of our control now,” he said. “On behalf of the LDC [Legislative District Committee], we are sorry that you have to be here, but my hands are tied.”
Effective July 1, mass meetings will no longer be allowed as a nominating method for General Assembly members in Virginia.
“I don’t understand why we don’t just use the voting process that’s in place,” said Giles County administrator Chris McKlarney. “I’m just glad to see voters get out on a Saturday as much hassle as it took for them to get in here today and take the time.”
McKlarney volunteered to spend his day shuttling voters to and from the meeting location. He was moved by an elderly woman struggling to walk but insisted on climbing onto the bus and traveling to cast her ballot in spite of those “trying to suppress her vote.”
Former Republican state delegate Dave Nutter was in attendance and pointed out there were “more efficient ways to do this” that would not inhibit constituents from coming to vote. When asked if the choice of mass meeting was made in an attempt to tip the scales in favor of the lesser-known Pyles, Nutter said, “It was, in my mind.”
Typically, committees pick between either a primary or firehouse primary as the manner in which voters will choose a nominee. The four chairs of the respective Republican committees from Giles, Pulaski, Montgomery and Radford determined which method would be used. Since Montgomery and Pulaski counties boast the largest percentage of voters, their vote carried more weight as they selected the mass meeting.
So, why did both the 42nd and 41st state House districts land on mass meetings this election cycle? The answer changes depending on who is asked.
According to John “Chip” Craig, Republican chairman for the city of Radford, former Montgomery chairwoman Jo Anne Price and Pulaski’s former chair “insisted on this mess” to aid the underdog Pyles. Price then allegedly refused to share any details of the meeting with her colleagues for months before officially resigning from her post on May 31, three days before the mass meeting. The Pulaski chair was also voted out of office the week prior.
“In a day we were able to put together these procedures here and we’re pretty proud of the work we did with this,” said Craig. “It’s amazing she can blame somebody else since this was 100 percent on her and she didn’t share any information about anything with any of us until just a few days ago.”
Information like what forms and poll books should be used at the meeting, as well as how much money was spent and how was it invested. However, the New River Community College administration and staff provided the scrambling Republicans some much-needed assistance to pull off the event, said Craig.
Price has a different perspective on why Saturday’s proceedings resulted in a “fiasco.”
“We did the mass meeting in the 41st. It’s the registration process they chose, instead of using my process, they came into the meeting and changed everything,” said Price, naming Craig as the instigator of the changes. “I stepped down from chair … because it was a mess. It wouldn’t work. It would create exactly this, and I don’t want to be part of it because they intended it because they did not want the mass meeting. They wanted everybody pissed off to begin with because they do not want to hear Jody Pyles and Jason Ballard side by side.”
Pyles and Ballard were eventually heard side by side, though the chaos of the event may have put the untried candidate at a disadvantage despite Price’s best attempts. Ballard’s supporters jeered and mockingly applauded during Pyles’ three-minute speech. The former legislative aide to state Sen. Amanda Chase, whose background also includes pastor, martial arts studio owner, country musician and fired police officer, endeavored to include a range of provocative statements, claiming our hands are stained with the blood of “2,500 babies,” “an entire generation of gender confused children” as well “a generation of kids that have been drugged with Ritalin.”
Ballard, an Army veteran and attorney, then took the stage to spend one minute thanking everyone for coming out despite the unideal conditions.
“I’ve been a dependable, relentless conservative and your voice in Richmond over the last two years,” he said to wrap up. “Send me back to Richmond so I can continue working for you. I will serve you with dignity and respect.”
And an overwhelming majority did choose Ballard as the Republican nominee for the 42nd House District.
Ballard’s nomination may be tantamount to election. So far, there’s no Democratic candidate in this district, which voted 66.3% for Republican Glenn Youngkin in the 2021 governor’s race.
Other contested nominations for the General Assembly in both parties will be settled in June 20 primaries.
In a statement following the nomination Ballard said, “I am humbled by the record amount of support our campaign received from voters at today’s Mass Meeting. More than 1,200 people took time out of their busy schedules to spend the day with us and have their voices heard. The New River Valley supports Governor Youngkin, and I look forward to continuing to push forward his conservative agenda.”