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Are Open Primaries the Solution? September 16, 2010

Posted by SV in Democracy, Republican Party.
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Unpredictability has been the norm in the 2010 election cycle so far.  While many incumbents are feeling the heat from angry and dissatisfied voters, the wrath of the Tea Parties has so far fallen disproportionately on Republicans.  Just this week Delaware GOP primary voters chose Christine O’Donnell, a firebrand conservative who has lost statewide races twice, over Representative (and former governor) Mike Castle, who has won statewide races twelve times.  The result: Biden’s old Senate seat will almost certainly be a safe Democratic hold.  Why have the Tea Parties proven so destructive to the Republican Party?  Because they tend to lean Republican and thus vote in GOP primaries, allowing many Democrats to escape their electoral clout, at least until the general election in November.

Michael Castle (R-DE): Moderate Republican, An Endangered Species?

What has been the result of this intra-party rivalry?  In state after state, “establishment” and/or moderate Republican candidates have lost to Tea Party-backed insurgents and “outsiders” in the primaries, often with the backing of conservative kingmakers Sarah Palin and Senator Jim DeMint.  The impact of these races will be mixed in November.  While Tea Party candidates for the Senate may still win in Kentucky and Alaska, they are more likely lose in Nevada and Delaware (seats that more moderate GOP candidates may have easily won).  However, this does not tell the full story.  In six years (or less for House members) the electoral climate will almost certainly be different, and new senators such as Joe Miller (AK) or Rand Paul (KY) may find themselves losing reelection races in their red states (just as the 2006 and 2008 elections swept away Republicans in supposedly safe seats).  As a disclaimer, this may not hold true for candidates that have Tea Party support but are not controlled by them, such as Marco Rubio in Florida or Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania.

Sarah Palin and Jim DeMint: The Democrats' Best Friends?

It is therefore highly likely that the GOP primaries this year will threaten Republicans’ prospect of winning the Senate (and narrow its advantage in the House) in 2010 as well as endanger any majorities in future election cycles.  What, then, is the solution to this growing problem?  How can moderates of both parties hope to fend off challenges from the far left or right without making extreme statements or casting votes that make them unelectable come November?  On the state scene, California and Washington have adopted an innovative solution: open, nonpartisan primaries.  The constitutional amendment approved by 53% of Californians in June, Proposition 14, will take effect in the 2012 elections (see here for a description of the measure by ballotpedia).

“Top two” primaries would be a significant break from traditional American politics.  Instead of candidates running in their own party primaries (and often having to run to the left or right to secure their bases), they would run against all other candidates for that office, regardless of party.  Every voter would get the same ballot, which could have multiple Republican, Democratic, and third-party candidates on it.  Whichever top two candidates received the most votes would face off in the general election.

This could, of course, cause two candidates of the same party (or ideological persuasion) to wind up being the two choices in November, especially in deep-blue states like Vermont or deep-red states like Idaho.  However, this is not a bad thing.  Since one of the candidates would likely be more moderate (or more likable, inspiring, trustworthy, etc.), it would give an incentive to independents and voters from the other party to support the candidate closer to their values.  This may seem like picking the lesser of two evils, but it is certainly better than the current system.  In states or districts dominated by one party, heavily outnumbered minority party voters either vote for their candidate who is destined to lose by a wide margin or do not vote at all.  A report by the Center for Governmental Studies found that members of the minority party could have substantial clout in electing the more moderate candidate.  As a side effect, top two primaries could significantly increase the number of Americans participating in the electoral process.

This system would obviously stir up a great deal of controversy.  Party bosses in California complained it would spell the death of political parties.  However, a party leadership could always support or oppose a candidate wishing to run under its banner.  Those who argue that such a system would produce ineffective or unprincipled candidates always trying to appeal to the middle have clearly not looked around lately.  Is it not better for candidates to appeal to the electoral center and majority instead of the far ends of the spectrum?  At the very least it would help tone down the divisive rhetoric and restore a semblance of civility to our electoral process.

Governor Schwarzenegger, Moderate Republican, Welcoming the Approval of Proposition 14

Examining the cases of Delaware and Arkansas this election cycle can shed some light on how this system would affect primary contests.  In Delaware a “top two” primary, in which independents and everyone else could vote for any candidate, would almost certainly have produced Republican Mike Castle and Democrat Chris Coons as the candidates.  Christine O’Donnell, who snatched victory from the moderate Castle and has no chance in November, would not have made it to the general election because she lacks broad appeal in Delaware.  In Arkansas, incumbent Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln may not have had to run to her left and may have avoided a costly run-off if an open primary were in place.  Though she still would probably lose to Republican John Boozman, the contest may have been slightly more competitive.

Adopting the top two primary in more states would shake up American politics.  After a couple of election cycles, this system would have the potential to produce a more respectful political climate, more bipartisanship, and broadly agreeable and durable solutions to the economic, social, and political problems that have plagued the country for decades.  In that way this solution to often self-destructive party primaries may engender solutions to far greater, nationwide problems.

President Obama – Senator Barack Obama Takes White House November 4, 2008

Posted by Adam Nowland in Election 2008, Politics, President Bush, President Obama, U.S. Government.
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To the exuberant celebration of Democrats and liberals across the United States, and to the dismay of conservatives around the country, Senator Barack Obama (D – Illinois), the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, swept into power November 4th, defeating his Republican opponent, Senator John McCain (R – Arizona).  As polls around the country closed Tuesday evening, the major news networks wasted no time declaring state after state for Obama and his running mate, Senator Joe Biden (D – Delaware).  Preliminary data indicated that President-elect Obama would have no problem reaching the number of electoral votes required to seal his victory, a result which likely surprised very few of the pundits and analysts deciphering polls and results.

                After eight tumultuous years under the administration of President George W. Bush, many Americans were ready for a new direction, and eagerly snapped up Obama’s campaign slogan “Change We Can Believe In,” hoping that electing a liberal Democrat would help stem the tide of anti-American sentiment sweeping the globe and help solve a myriad of other problems ravaging the country.  Bush’s administration oversaw two seemingly endless and unpopular wars in Asia, watched as the global economy entered its worst struggle in years, and angered many millions of people around the globe by taking what was regarded as a unilateral approach in American foreign policy, taking significant action in other parts of the globe without seeking the consultation or assistance of other nations.

                The result was a President with the lowest approval rating of his time in office, and indeed one of the worst approval ratings of any recent Commander-in-Chief.  Similarly, the U.S. Congress has been saddled with an approval rating of barely half of that of the President, shocking when one considers the unpopularity of President Bush, and even more shocking when one remembers that it is controlled not by the Republicans, but Democrats.  Even the most casual observer of the American government can conclude that voters are fed up with the way the government is being run.  Regardless of one’s views of the effectiveness of the current administration and Congress, it is clear that those men and women entering office in 2009 face substantial, if not overwhelming, challenges.

                Indeed, it is a significant show of faith on the part of voters to elect a President who has yet to complete even a single term of office as a senator, and one who brings a considerable lack of experience as well as tremendous expectations with him to the Oval Office.  Obama holds the distinction of becoming the first African-American to ever hold the country’s highest office, a major step forwards for minorities in the United States, but he will be under close scrutiny from both those who voted for him and those who opposed him.  Obama must demonstrate that he can effectively do the job of leading the world’s greatest nation, and prove that he was justifiably elected because of his abilities and not just because people saw his race as a chance to vote for something different.  Obama is smart enough to put race behind him all together, but there are still enormous numbers of Americans who voted for him simply because he was black, or against him for the same reason.  Each of those votes for or against was a form of racism in and of themselves, and Obama must rise above such a dangerous idea.

                In addition to his achievement of being the first black man to be elected President, Obama will also have to face the challenging problems of the economy, the national deficit, America’s declining status in global policy-making and popularity, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, problems with the national health system, Social Security, and the all-encompassing “War on Terror.”  Each of these problems is significant, and most cannot be controlled singularly from the White House.  Obama has the support of a heavily Democratic Congress, which will enable him to accomplish a great deal for at least two years, if not more, but such power is also a curse.  The President-elect will have no excuses if he cannot find solutions for many of these problems.  In fact, Obama runs the risk of making some of these problems worse by tampering with plans that are already in the works.  For example, then-Senator Obama strongly opposed the Iraq “surge” when more American troops were sent to the Middle East to help secure the new Iraqi government.  Mr. Obama’s fears proved to be false when the surge was decidedly effective, but if he chooses to immediately draw down American forces to appease his electors upon taking office, the situation in the tentatively quiet region could again spiral out of control.  Obama will need to tread cautiously, as American voters give their elected officials short leashes, and could very easily vote Mr. Obama out in four years if his proposed plans don’t create visible results.

                President-elect Barack Obama campaigned on a platform of “change,” a tangible object or idea that Americans apparently desperately needed and wanted.  Time will tell if Obama’s guarantees of something that breaks from “business as usual” in Washington are true, or if his words are just another fantasy in the land of fairy tales.  Obama faces a difficult road ahead, and the margin of his victory and the amount of support he has as he takes office will only add to his struggles if he fails to produce.  The American voters have spoken, and they have marched to the byword of “change.”  Let us as citizens hope that this change isn’t just believable, but that it truly is necessary – and effective –  as well.

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