Assault on The Primary System
Posted on May 4, 2010In the early 20th century, in an effort to return power to the people, progressive politicians like Robert La Follette pushed hard to reform the political system by insisting that states use a primary process.
Primary elections would take power away from local power barons and give it to the people, who would then be responsible for nominating candidates to stand for election.
Most states now use some sort of primary system to nominate candidates to stand for election. In many Congressional districts, the primary is the most important election because through gerrymandering, most Congressional districts are either solidly Republican or solidly Democrat.
About 40 states use primaries, most of which are closed primaries, meaning that you have to register as a member of that party to vote in that party’s primary. Some are open primaries, meaning that you only have to declare the day before or the day of in the polling place to be eligible to vote. Only one state has non-partisan blanket primary, Louisiana. In Louisiana, candidates run unaffiliated, and the top two qualify for a run-off if no candidate breaks fifty percent in the first election.
While reformers in the progressive era thought that the primary was a step forward a hundred years ago, things change. Back then, progressives were the original mavericks who were unaligned and viewed as disloyal by both political parties. La Follette led a revolt against Speaker Joe Cannon, even though he was a Republican just like the Czar.
But mavericks are now doing their best to turn the primary system on its head. Senator Joe Lieberman, who ran as the Democratic Vice Presidential candidate a decade ago, started the trend by rejecting the desires of partisan Democrats and running as an independent after he lost the Democratic primary. Senator Arlen Specter did a slight variation on the theme, when he switched parties rather than face Republican primary voters. And now, Governor Charlie Crist has decided that rather than fight for Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate (and probably lose), that he would run as a non-affiliated independent (and possibly win).
Crist’s decision drew boos from most national Republicans, but it got a hearty endorsement from California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a maverick Republican if there ever was one. The independent-minded actor turned politician is so fed-up with primary politics that he is supporting an initiative to do away with the primary in California once and for all.
Speaking of mavericks, John McCain is now denying that he ever was a maverick in his heated Senate primary campaign against a right-wing partisan, former talk show host J.D. Hayworth, a notable departure from his Presidential campaign, which proudly highlighted his maverick credentials in a memorable ad campaign, complete with a western soundtrack.
Blanche Lincoln, who sometimes played her own version of Democratic maverick in her tenure as a Senator, faces a similar challenge from the left, in a state who roundly despises Barack Obama. Imagine how hard it must be for Lincoln to move to the left in a primary, knowing that every step she takes to appeal to Democratic partisans, is one more step in the political grave for career as Senator.
Think about how each of one of these Senators would feel if they know that they could run not only as a partisan but also as a centrist. Think if they all had the chance, with their name i.d., to appeal to voters not as Republicans or as Democrats, but simply as constituents, how much more running room they would have to work with.
The primary system is the one place where the far left and the far right can reach agreement, because it is in the primary system where they have their biggest influence. African-American politicians see the primary system as their best chance to win elected office, as do the most conservative white politicians. In most Congressional districts, and increasingly in most Senate elections, either the most liberal or most conservative ideologue tends to win the most votes.
In Congress, you can see the result. Few politicians dare to march near the center of the political spectrum, especially in an election year, where most of the American people reside, because the percentages simply don’t add up to appeal to the primary voter.
The political parties, by their very definition, should and are the biggest supporters of the primary process, especially the close primary process. They should be because that is where they have the most power. But even within the political parties, one can see growing discomfort. Extreme partisans on the right and the left are threatening, in this election of elections, to upend and highjack the primaries, putting in danger the chances of the party to win. Thusly, Jane Harman faces a left-wing challenge which may put that seat in danger for the Democrats whilst Rand Paul threatens to beat the establishment candidate from the right, opening the door to the Democrat in a solidly red state of Kentucky.
A century ago, the progressives built the primary system so that more people like them could get elected. Now, the system that they built is working to keep people like them from getting elected.