As the national Republican Party looks to broaden its appeal, it is criticizing party leaders in states like Virginia who choose to hold closed nominating conventions to pick their candidates instead of open primaries that invite greater participation.
That's a problem because the Republican National Committee is hoping to make Virginia's gubernatorial race this year a test case for changes it wants to make to increase the party's appeal among minorities and young voters.
"Our party needs to grow its membership, and primaries seem to be a more effective way to do so," an RNC self-examination concluded this week. "The greater the number of people who vote in a Republican primary, the more likely they will turn out and vote again for the Republican candidate in the fall election."
But Virginia Republicans, including Gov. Bob McDonnell, are not ready to give up on long-standing traditions.
"[McDonnell] believes we must look for every opportunity to bring more voters into the Republican tent, and the only way to grow the party is through inclusion and outreach," spokesman Tucker Martin said. "That being said, he has also been clear that it's up to the members of the party to determine the nomination method they deem appropriate for each election cycle."
The primary-versus-convention debate has pitted conservative grassroots activists, who favor conventions, against their party leaders, who believe they need to grow the party to win. Nowhere is that more pronounced than in Virginia.
A party coup by conservative activists backing Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli for governor switched the nominating format from a June primary to a convention this May. The move ultimately forced Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, a more moderate Republican, to drop out and cede the nomination to Cuccinelli. Bolling did not respond to requests for comment.
"There certainly is a tug of war within the Republican Party, which is the appropriate way to proceed," said Cortland Putbrese, chairman of the Republican Party of Richmond. "Often times, folks get in one camp or the other, and they tend to forget there's times when a primary may be appropriate and times when a convention may be appropriate."
Cuccinelli, who previously backed the convention format, declined to comment on the RNC report.
The convention process is largely a mystery to the average voter, and it tends to attract mainly the most dedicated party members, which in the GOP translates to conservatives.
But Northern Virginia Tea Party organizer Ron Wilcox said primaries are costly and benefit established politicians who can spend heavily on advertising and consultants.
"The folks that want to make millions in commissions want us to think that a convention is a bad way to nominate a candidate," Wilcox said. "It actually saves money and takes money out of politics."