Judge orders GOP primary election in Senate District 17

Published 4:06 pm Wednesday, March 29, 2023

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A Richmond judge has ordered the State Board of Elections hold a primary to decide the Republican Party’s nominee for Virginia’s 17th Senate District, finding in favor of an ousted GOP official’s lawsuit.

A March 9 letter from Virginia Department of Elections Commissioner Susan Beals to local electoral boards listed June 20 Republican primaries for 27 Senate races, including the 17th, but a nearly identical March 10 letter showed primaries for only 26 races, the 17th no longer among them.

Dawn Jones, whom Republican officials ousted as Suffolk’s GOP chairwoman in February, is fighting her removal and had filed a lawsuit on March 16, alleging Gov. Glenn Youngkin and Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares unlawfully pressured Beals to make the change for the benefit of one of two candidates vying for the GOP nomination.

Del. Emily Brewer, R-Isle of Wight, is running for the party’s nomination against Hermie Sadler of Emporia. Sadler, in a March 10 email to The Smithfield Times, had alleged a convention would give Brewer an edge because it would be presided over by one of her supporters.

Suffolk has the largest weighted vote, at 34%, of the 10 localities that comprise the 17th District. As such, Steve Trent – who replaced Jones as Suffolk’s GOP chair – would have “control” over the convention and could decide “who can vote,” Sadler contended. Campaign finance records show Trent made a $500 donation to Brewer in December.

Evidence Senior Assistant Attorney General Calvin Brown presented on behalf of the state at a March 27 hearing included a written statement by Virginia Republican Party Chairman Rich Anderson, who contended Jones’ removal as Suffolk’s GOP chair should have made her a non-voting member of the 17th’s Legislative District Committee – a body of all city- and county-level Republican Party chairs tasked with deciding on the method of nomination in contested races. Anderson’s statement had contended Jones acted beyond her authority when she – and not Trent – cast Suffolk’s vote in favor of holding a primary, and then certified that vote to the state.

Cardwell, however, rejected Brown’s argument, stating in her March 29 order that “this court need only look to the plain language” of state law, which asserts that once the chair of a district submits proper notice calling for a primary, the State Board of Elections “shall order the holding of a primary election.”

The state’s “attempt to present the myriad of intraparty politics obfuscates the actual issue presented to the Court, which is if proper notice was given, was such notice honored?” Cardwell’s ruling states. “The Court finds that Plaintiff, as the duly appointed chair of the 17th (committee) was entitled by her position to give notice to the (state) that Senate District 17 was to determine its nomination by primary.”

Jones’ lawyer, Rick Boyer, praised Cardwell’s ruling, noting state law “gives political parties the right to determine their internal processes and who are its ‘duly constituted authorities,’ not the government.” The crux of Anderson’s and the state’s argument was that Jones, by virtue of being removed as the Suffolk GOP chair, wasn’t the “duly constituted authority” tasked under state law with notifying the state of whether the 17th’s committee planned to hold a primary.

Brewer’s campaign issued the following statement on the ruling:

“Throughout this race, I have been working towards the goal that we all have – to elect a proven conservative in the 17th Senate District. I am the only proven, battle-tested conservative running for the 17th Senate District. I have always Backed the Blue, I’ve fought to protect life, and stood cemented for our 2nd Amendment Rights. I’ve fought for my constituents every day, and no matter the method of nomination, I am confident that I will be victorious.”

“I am happy for Dawn Jones and her family,” Sadler said in an emailed statement to the Times. “She stood up for her rights against the establishment and won. Now that all of the confusion and misinformation is behind us my team will prepare for the primary on June 20th and we look forward to taking our message to voters across the entire 17th district.”

Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter declined to comment on the ruling and deferred to the Department of Elections. Miyares spokeswoman Victoria LaCivita also declined to comment on the ruling.

“The judge has ruled and we will issue an updated order,” Beals said via a spokesperson.

Editor’s note: This story is updated with reactions from Brewer’s and Sadler’s campaigns, Youngkin’s and Miyares’ offices, and Beals.