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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.