Will there be a new constitutional convention?

The U.S. Constitution.

National Archives

Wait, why are we talking about a constitutional convention?

Democrats are deeply worried that Virginia, which Hillary Clinton won by five points in the 2016 election, is about to come under Republican control. Virginia elects a new governor on Tuesday, and the heavy favorite for much of the race was the Democratic candidate, current Lieutenant Gov. Ralph Northam.

But Northam has run a lackluster campaign, so now it looks like Republican Ed Gillespie, a former adviser to President George W. Bush, could pull out the win. Should that happen, Virginia would come under complete GOP control, as Republicans already control the state's legislature.

A Northam loss would spook Democrats nationwide for a whole host of reasons. But some liberals are already warning that a Gillespie victory could open the door to a new constitutional convention.

Why is that?

Article V of the U.S. Constitution describes how Congress "on the application of the legislatures of two thirds of the several states, shall call a convention for proposing amendments." So that means you would need 34 states to agree to a constitutional convention. Or at least it does in theory, as the U.S. has never actually amended the Constitution in this way.

Here's the thing that has some liberals worried: the GOP currently controls both the governorship and the legislature in 32 states, and a Gillespie win in Virginia would make that number 33. (This number includes Nebraska, which technically has a nonpartisan legislature that is effectively controlled by Republicans.)  That means that – again, in theory – Republicans would only need to take control of one more state to get together and initiate a convention, where (in theory!) they could pass all sorts of amendments.

Have Republicans said they want a constitutional convention?

Although it's never been tried successfully, scholars, activists and politicians from both ends of the political spectrum have at times called for a constitutional convention. It was always a go-nowhere enterprise, however, until a few years ago.

In 2013, popular conservative radio host Mark Levin wrote a book calling for a new constitutional convention to shrink the size of government while bypassing Congress. This new convention, Levin argued, could then codify a series of sweeping conservative reforms in the Constitution, such as term limits for members of Congress and Supreme Court justices, and the repeal of the 17th Amendment, which would allow state legislatures to pick U.S. Senators again.

Levin's book quickly shot to the top of The New York Times best-seller list. The argument for a convention became popular among Tea Party types, and suddenly numerous Republican lawmakers were hot on the idea in order to pass conservative agenda items like a Balanced Budget Amendment, which would normally require a two-thirds supermajority in Congress to pass.

Additionally, conservative groups like Citizens for Self-Governance have been created in recent years just to push for a constitutional convention. Former Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, who is greatly respected within the GOP, has also become a major proponent for a convention, and released a book this year arguing for one. Twelve states have already adopted resolutions calling for a new constitutional convention.

"[T]his is not just some idle pipe-dream of a few people with nothing better to do," Teresa Tomlinson, the Mayor of Columbus, Georgia, wrote in The Daily Beast over the summer. "They're really trying to do it. Coburn works with the Convention of States Project to encourage state legislatures to petition for such an amendments convention. Over 40 states either have a request for a constitutional convention or are currently seen as amenable to passing such a request."

So could a constitutional convention really happen?

The issue points to the real and understandable liberal anxiety about the GOP's rather sudden dominance in the states. In addition to the 33 states that have their legislatures in GOP hands, the Republicans also control 34 governorships, although that number will likely drop to 33 if Northam wins given that the Democrats are poised to win Tuesday's gubernatorial election in New Jersey.

However, holding a constitutional convention is still a niche issue that exists in the background of American politics. So while it's true that some conservative activists are pushing for a convention, and the Democrats' astonishing weakness at the state level could make one start seeming like a real possibility, it's probably still a long way's off.

And as we saw this summer with the failed repeal of Obamacare, conservative causes that sound nice to GOP legislators in theory can be quickly abandoned once they appear unpopular. So regardless of what happens on Tuesday, we should not assume that a rewriting of the Constitution is imminent, although it is arguably becoming more plausible.