HARRISONBURG — On just the first round of voting, Republicans in Virginia’s 6th District picked Del. Ben Cline Saturday as their congressional nominee and also ousted the district’s committee chairman.
Cline, a Lexington lawyer and former aide of retiring U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, won the nomination with 52 percent of the vote. Republican National Committeewoman Cynthia Dunbar came in second with 39 percent. Eight people competed in the seven-hour convention, which was one of the largest district conventions in state history.
“We’re going to stand for those Republican values we campaigned on and we ran on, and we’re going to make sure are implemented in Washington,” Cline said in his victory speech. “We’re going to make sure we drain the swamp.”
Cline, who has a staunchly conservative record in the General Assembly, vowed to cut spending and promised to help Trump build a border wall.
Dunbar, who positioned herself as an anti-establishment fighter, took the stage before Cline and hugged him when he came to address the crowd. The former Liberty University School of Law professor called for unity around Cline.
It was expected to be a long day at James Madison University Convocation Center, with delegates anticipating having to cast multiple ballots. But that changed dramatically after Chaz Haywood, Rockingham County’s circuit court clerk, dropped out of the race in a speech from the podium and urged attendees to vote for Cline.
The move came as a shock, as Haywood was considered to be the third-strongest candidate in the race. His would-be voters likely followed his request and went to Cline.
“You have to make a decision in your heart,” Haywood told the crowd. “This is bigger than me.”
After Cline’s victory, Haywood said he decided to exit the race after taking into consideration the delegates who turned up that day to vote. Once he saw the names of the 2,234 delegates who signed in, he determined their affiliation. Haywood said he anticipated hanging on for two or three rounds, but didn’t believe he’d become the nominee.
“When I was looking at the numbers, I had to make a decision, and that has to not be about emotion, but logic,” he said.
Haywood called Cline the strongest candidate among the eight to defeat a Democrat in November in the 6th District, which stretches from Roanoke eastward to Lynchburg and north to Front Royal.
Cline said Haywood’s decision was humbling.
“Chaz is a great man to put the district ahead of himself,” he said. “He’s a true servant and leader.”
The other candidates — Mike Desjadon, Kathryn Lewis, Ed Justo, Elliot Pope and Douglas Wright — received less than 4 percent each.
Even after Haywood dealt Dunbar a blow by endorsing Cline, she delivering a rousing speech as her supporters swarmed the stage, waived signs and red towels inscribed with “Rally For Dunbar.”
“I’m not here for myself,” she said. “This is not a career for me. I’m here for you because you asked me to run because you are sick and tired of excuses. Well, I’m sick, too.”
The day started favorably for Cline when the temporary chairman he favored to oversee the convention, 4th Congressional District Chairman Jack Wilson
won a vote over 6th District Chairman Scott Sayre’s preferred candidate, Steve Albertson, former chairman of the Stafford County Republican Committee. Cline and four other campaigns backed Wilson because they believed he would be impartial through the proceedings.
Harrisonburg attorney Jennifer Brown defeated Sayre, winning 58 percent of the vote, while Sayre gathered 42 percent. Sayre is leaving after one two-year term.
“You want to see the 6th District stay red,” Brown said. “You want to see us grow our party so we can start out-motivating and start out-voting the Democrats.”
Brown cited inter-party controversies to tell delegates that Sayre needed to go.
“We need a leader who will work with everyone to come up with solutions and not more problems,” she told delegates.
Infighting characterized the planning for the district convention. Sayre was accused of rigging the event in favor of Dunbar by pushing for unusual rules.
Sayre said Saturday he was satisfied with the event..
“We promised a good convention and a good experience,” he said.
Another controversy involving alleged conflicts of interest between Dunbar and Sayre dogged them over the past few months. For instance, Dunbar was accused of receiving the names of delegates before others as a campaign advantage, which she denied.
Dunbar and Sayre were both the subject of a Federal Election Commission complaint last month that accused Sayre of hiring Dunbar as a contractor to funnel money to her campaign.
Like Sayre, state Republican Chairman John Whitbeck endorsed the convention, saying he was “impressed and proud.” He addressed the 6th District committee twice last week through emails over various issues, including attempts at suppressing convention delegations.
“Considering my concerns, I was pleased with how everyone was getting along, and it was a fair process,” Whitbeck said.
Former 6th District Chairman Wendell Walker said that by replacing Sayre and not nominating the candidate he favored, delegates showed their dissatisfaction with the committee’s handling.
“What we had today was a housecleaning,” he said.
Republicans were uniformly optimistic that their infighting will be forgotten as they focus on November.
Voters in the mostly rural 6th District tend to favor Republican candidates in statewide elections, with 57 percent or greater of the vote in the last eight statewide elections up until 2016. President Donald Trump won almost 60 percent of the vote in 2016 in the 6th District.
Goodlatte announced in November he was retiring after never earning less than 60 percent of the vote in his re-election bids. Goodlatte congratulated Cline on the convention floor after his victory.
Cline may face as many as three opponents in the November election. Democrats in the 6th District will select their candidate in a June 12 primaryamong Sergio Coppola, Jennifer Lewis, Charlotte Moore and Peter Volosin. Independents Michael Frend and Steve America also are running.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Cline said. “We’ve got a Democratic Party that feels like it’s somehow emboldened just because they stand for nothing except blocking Donald Trump’s agenda, and now they want to stand up and try to win the 6th District. Are we going to let them win the 6th District in November?”
The crowd shouted “no.”