RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Thousands of noisy and sometimes quarrelsome Virginia GOP delegates will begin the serious work Saturday of nominating this fall's slate of statewide candidates. With gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli unopposed, the focus at the state Republican convention will be on the battles among seven lieutenant governor hopefuls and two attorney general candidates.
But if you want find the real die-hards at this weekend's tea party-dominated nominating marathon, show up on a Friday afternoon and talk to some of the few hundred committed activists huddled in tiny clusters inside the cavernous confines of the 42-year-old Richmond Coliseum.
Consider Burgess and Caroline MacNeal. After spending most of their week at a conference in Nashville, Tenn., they could have spent a picture-book spring afternoon at their Giles County home unwinding. Instead, they sat in folding chairs Friday on the concrete floor that on any other weekend might be an indoor football field or a hockey rink.
"The Republican Party's still got problems and it's sort of important that people like us get together and get better candidates. This is our chance to do it," said Burgess MacNeal, a custom builder of sophisticated commercial audio equipment whose company, ITI Audio in Giles County, has a huge following in the American recording industry.
The collective "our" he references is the tea party, he said, "but not the crazy part of the tea party."
The MacNeals are part of a movement that, for the past three years, saw the tea party galvanize conservatives and throw their weight and energy behind the GOP. The movement consolidated its hold on Virginia's GOP a year ago, taking control of a majority of seats on the Republican Party of Virginia's ruling central committee.
In Giles, a four-hour drive from Richmond in mountainous southwestern Virginia, the local tea party organization "really turned out the Republican vote in the last three elections," Burgess MacNeal said. Among those races was Republican H. Morgan Griffith's 2010 come-from-behind victory that ousted Democratic Rep. Rick Boucher from the seat he'd held in Virginia's "Fightin' 9th" Congressional district for 28 years.
The fact that there is a convention this weekend rather than a June primary election is because of the tea party. Shortly after the movement consolidated its hold on the state party apparatus, it convened the central committee last June and reversed the committee's 2011 decision to nominate candidates in an open primary, voting instead to hold a closed convention where pro-Cuccinelli conservatives would dominate.
Cuccinelli is a tea party favorite, a social conservative who strongly opposes abortion and as attorney general filed suit seeking to overturn President Barack Obama's health care law.
Saturday, with up to 13,000 delegates ready for a long day of balloting, conservatives will anoint Cuccinelli by enthusiastic acclamation before they begin an afternoon of multiple ballots and noisy reckoning over the down-ticket candidates.
But still, why? It's an afternoon that could be spent golfing, fishing, gardening, shopping, sunning by the pool — anything but talking Republican politics in the cold, concrete-and-steel confines of an aging sports arena.
"It's what — maybe one Friday afternoon every year?" said Pam Johnson, the treasurer of Goochland County, a solidly Republican exurb of Richmond.
"And besides," added Benjamin Sloane III, who runs a software company in Goochland, "if we weren't here, we'd probably just be at work."
On Saturday, the convention will pick its lieutenant governor nominee from a field that includes Del. Scott Lingamfelter and Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart, both of Prince William County; former state Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis of Fairfax County, Stafford County Board of Supervisors Chairman Susan Stimpson, state Sen. Steve Martin of Chesterfield, businessman Pete Snyder of Fairfax County, the Rev. E.W. Jackson of Chesapeake.
In the attorney general's nomination contest, delegates will select between Del. Rob Bell of Albemarle County and state Sen. Mark Obenshain of Harrisonburg. Obenshain is the son of Dick Obenshain, a conservative force in Virginia politics who won the party's nomination for the U.S. Senate at the party's 1978 convention but died that summer in a plane crash returning from a campaign trip.