GOP governor race: Who’s in first depends on who’s in second

FILE - In this May 17, 2013, file photo, candidate for Governor of Virginia, Pete Snyder, center, gestures as he talks to delegates during the opening of the Virginia Republican convention in Richmond, Va. The GOP gubernatorial candidate will be chosen during the party's May 8 nominating convention. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

FALLS CHURCH, Va. — Being a voter’s second choice is usually a recipe for disaster for a political candidate, but in this year’s chaotic GOP gubernatorial race in Virginia, second-place status could be a winning ticket.

Seven candidates are vying for the Republican nomination at what the GOP is calling an “unassembled convention” this Saturday.

None of the four top-tier candidates — Pete Snyder, Amanda Chase, Kirk Cox and Glenn Youngkin — have established themselves as a clear front-runner. As a result, under the ranked-choice voting system the GOP is using, the winner will almost certainly need to be the second choice of numerous voters, and perhaps even the third choice, to secure the nomination.

Under the ranked-choice system — which has been adopted in Maine, Alaska, and a growing number of local elections around the country — voters rank the candidates in order of preference. If no candidate receives an outright majority, the last-place finisher is eliminated, and that candidate’s votes are reallocated to whomever those voters listed as their second preference.

The process continues, reshuffling votes until one candidate obtains an outright majority. It’s designed to mimic the voting at a true convention, where delegates gather in a location, listen to speeches from the candidates, and hold multiple ballots until a winner gets a majority.

Last week, Cox put out an online ad explicitly asking delegates to name him as their No. 2.

“I understand I might not be everyone’s first choice,” Cox says in the ad. “But if I’m not your first choice, I’d really appreciate you putting me down as your second.”

In a phone interview, Cox said the rationale for such an overt plea is obvious.

“It’s not hard to do the math,” he said. “There’s seven candidates. I don’t see anyone getting a majority on the first ballot.”

Cox also said that when he makes calls to the tens of thousands of Virginians who have registered as delegates, it’s clear that many aren’t even aware they will be casting a ranked-choice ballot.

Cox, a former House speaker with a 30-year career in the House of Delegates, is often seen as the favorite of mainstream or moderate Republicans; but Cox said he’s not targeting any particular candidate’s supporters in his plea for second-choice votes.

“I would hope I have a pretty good chance with all of them,” he said.

Chase, meanwhile, is taking the opposite approach: She says she’s campaigning to be voters’ first and only choice.

“I would never say I want to be No. 2, because that means you’re losing,” Chase said.

Indeed, she’s asking her supporters to choose her in all seven slots on the ballot. As a practical matter, that’s the same as choosing her first and leaving the other choices blank, but she said putting her name in all seven slots eliminates an avenue of chicanery, that someone might tamper with the ballot and fill in another name in the alternate positions.

The ranked-choice format is believed to be particularly troublesome for Chase, a polarizing figure even in her own party.

“Her supporters are her supporters, period,” said Mark Rozell, political science professor at George Mason University. “She’s not anyone’s second choice. Her support on subsequent ballots will sink.”

The concern for fraud expressed by Chase was shared by multiple candidates, who prevailed on the GOP’s state central committee to put procedures in place to ensure transparency during the counting process.

As a result, after delegates cast their ballots Saturday at 39 polling locations across the state, the ballots will be counted in a central location by multiple witnesses with candidate representatives in place as observers. The precautions will also slow the count — the party won’t even begin counting ballots on Saturday and has advised it could take as long as a week to declare a winner.

The campaign of Youngkin, a founding member of the Carlyle Group investment firm making his first run for office, declined to make him available for an interview. But in a written statement, he too was going for No. 2. If delegates are committed to another candidate, then “I ask for their second choice vote and let them know that I am the best positioned to beat Terry McAuliffe in November as an outsider, Christian conservative, and successful business leader.”

At some candidate forums, Cox and Youngkin have suggested that each might want the other to serve in their Cabinet if elected, possibly appealing to each other’s voters as second choices.

Rozell said it makes some sense that Cox and Youngkin might be able to garner second-place slots from each other’s delegates, while the same might be true for Chase and Snyder.

While all four candidates offer similar views on the issues, Chase and Snyder’s rhetorical styles are at times more appealing to those who favor a more combative tone. Chase has embraced the nickname of “Trump in heels” while Snyder frequently refers to himself as an “outlaw conservative.”

Rozell said the race could come down to “who ends up first in last place,” meaning that the first major candidate to be eliminated will provide a huge swath of second-place votes that could allow one of the other candidates to get a majority.

The delegates will also chose candidates for lieutenant governor and attorney general on Saturday using the same ranked-choice voting system.

Democrats will choose their nominee from among five candidates next month in a state-run primary with no runoff. Whoever gets the most votes will win it, even if no one gets a majority.