Democrats should push for more open primaries as a way of weakening the tea party movement, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said Thursday, laying out a plan to try to isolate the grass-roots conservative movement that has emerged as a key hurdle to President Obama’s agenda over the past three years.
Mr. Schumer said moving to a nonpartisan “blanket” primary — in which all candidates compete and the top finishers advance regardless of party affiliation — would force right-wing candidates to appeal to centrist voters, which he said would push out the most extreme candidates.
“Do what a handful of states have done and have a primary where all voters, members of every party, can vote and the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, then enter a runoff,” Mr. Schumer said in a speech at the Center for American Progress. “It would force the most extreme candidates in Republican districts to move closer to the middle to pick up more moderate Republicans and independents.”
Such a system is in place in California, Louisiana and Washington state.
Mr. Schumer said the tea party movement is being controlled by a few wealthy donors whose limited-government philosophy does not reflect the ideas of millions of voters who identify as tea party supporters but who benefit from government programs such as Social Security or public education.
“The best way to deal with the tea party’s obsessive, anti-government mania is to confront it directly by showing the people the need for government to help them out of their morass,” he said. “Let’s remind people the reason they’re frustrated in Washington is not that government is doing too much, but because it’s gridlocked and not doing enough.”
Mr. Schumer said Democrats should go on the offensive by portraying the government as a “force for good,” focusing on issues such as raising the minimum wage, making college more affordable and building bridges, roads and broadband infrastructure.
Sal Russo, chief strategist for the Tea Party Express, predicted that the strategy will not work with tea party supporters.
“The tea party is not going to be assuaged by suggesting that even a bigger and more expensive federal government is the answer,” he said.
The tea party movement was born in 2009 out of public anger over the government bailout of private banks and the early moves by newly inaugurated President Obama to boost government spending. Mr. Schumer said Fox News and other conservative-leaning news outlets helped spread the “propaganda” to the masses.
Powered by tea party enthusiasm, insurgent candidates unseated longtime Republicans in primaries in 2010 and went on to help Republicans win control of the House and gain seats in the Senate. Several tea party Senate candidates, however, lost races that analysts had said could have been won by more mainstream candidates.
Mr. Schumer’s hourlong speech shows that Democrats are starting to see tea party lawmakers as serious competition, said Dan Holler, communications director for the conservative activist group Heritage Action for America.
“I think what Sen. Schumer is trying to accomplish is to divide the tea party. I think that in and of itself is telling, that you have someone most people in Washington consider to be one of the smartest strategists in the country dedicating an hour to try to divide the tea party,” he said. “It speaks to the success the movement has had not only in terms of moving the Republican Party to a vision of smaller government but changing how Washington operates.”
Mr. Schumer said he spotted signs of xenophobia or cultural fear in tea party supporters and that many of them worry about increased immigration or an American political landscape that is less white and less male-dominated. He compared the tea party’s limited-government message to Prohibition in the 1920s, calling it a reaction to the country’s shift to a more urban economy.