CHICAGO — Any party that allows its opponents to help pick its candidates in “open” primaries is a PPINO — a “political party in name only” — say many Republican officials at their annual summer meeting.
Republican National Committee members and activists are still seething about reports that longtime Sen. Thad Cochran, Mississippi Republican, enlisted Democrats to help him win his tough primary contest this summer against state Sen. Chris McDaniel, who was backed by the tea party.
They would seem to have an ally in the GOP boss, but the sentiments of the entire party and the prospects for changing state laws are unclear.
At least one committee member plans to press the issue at the RNC meeting, which opened Wednesday.
Currently, 27 states let independents and Democrats help pick Republican candidates for general elections. The reason usually is not the desire of the state GOP but rather that the state legislature has mandated open primaries or requires no party registration.
“I have been a longtime supporter of closed primaries to choose our candidates for office,” RNC Chairman Reince Priebus told The Washington Times at the three-day gathering in the Windy City. “This is a position I have held for a long time and is consistent with the party’s platform.”
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Political parties have been weakening steadily over the past 40 years, and Republican primaries that are open to independents and Democrats in more than half of the states don’t give voters much reason to pick one party over the other, aside from ideological views.
About 25 percent of voters identify themselves as Republicans, 31 percent as Democrats and 42 percent as independents, according to the most recent Gallup poll on the subject.
Some conservatives meeting in Chicago have always held that an open primary benefits liberal Republicans, who can appeal to Democrats.
Other conservatives, however, say open primaries allow Democrats to vote for the more conservative, less-experienced and less-electable GOP candidate.
The only restriction for Georgia’s open primaries is that voters must stay with the same party if a runoff is necessary.
Georgia RNC member Linda Herren said it makes no sense that her state doesn’t “require citizens registering to vote to register by political party.”
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As a result, Georgia Democrats pretty much know the winners of their primaries before the polls open and are tempted to cross over to help sway the GOP choices.
“Those candidates that choose to run in a Democratic primary against the favored candidate rarely receive any Democratic Party support. Even more rarely do they secure the nomination for their party,” she said. So many Democrats choose to vote in the GOP primaries.
“They generally do this to assure that the weakest Republican candidate will be the one facing their candidate in the general election,” Mrs. Herren said.
This intraparty debate has produced no resolution at the RNC’s biannual meetings over the years.
Many conservatives are hopping mad that Democrats voting in the June 24 Republican primary runoff in Mississippi helped give the nomination to Mr. Cochran over Mr. McDaniel, who is contesting the results.
Mr. Priebus made opposition to open primaries part of his successful first campaign for RNC chairman.
Many of the other 167 elected members of the GOP’s national governing body share his view that the party’s core reason for existence is to have its members pick the best representatives for them in general elections.
“The Mississippi primary shows what can happen when you have an open primary,” Alabama GOP Chairman Bill Armistead said. “Most often it is for mischief. The Democrats who vote in our primary either want to support the weaker candidate so they will have a better shot at winning in the general election, or they have been coerced into voting in our party’s primary to elect a candidate more closely aligned with their party’s views and philosophy.”
Falling party membership
Membership in both major parties has been dropping as voters migrate to the independent or “no party” column. Open primaries may have something to do with that, some Republican leaders said.
“It’s self-evident that members of a political party joined that party for the very reason that they wanted to nominate candidates of their choosing, specifically and clearly excluding folks in other parties from participating,” said Missouri GOP Chairman Ed Martin. “This mushiness of open primaries accounts for the severe drop in party affiliation of late. There is no ‘value’ in belonging to a political party.”
Closing primaries may not be easy, said former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who is also a former RNC chairman held in high regard by most of the national party’s rank and file.
“There was a time, many years ago, when some of us in the GOP advocated party registration and closed primaries,” Mr. Barbour said. “It went nowhere in the state legislature and the public didn’t like it. I believe today the public still prefers open primaries.”
Three states render the idea of a political party even more meaningless, some critics said, by holding “blanket” or “jungle” open primaries. In Louisiana, Washington and California, all candidates for the same office, regardless of party affiliation, run against one another simultaneously in one nonpartisan primary. The top two finishers then face off in the general election. Supporters say this process tends to favor more centrist candidates in both parties over more ideological rivals.
“There are probably some voters who would prefer a Louisiana-style open primary — not a majority and certainly not me,” Mr. Barbour said.
“For decades, the Mississippi Republican Party has said, including in our platform in years past, ‘We are the Party of the Open Door.’ We welcome anyone who wants to participate in our party,” Mr. Barbour told The Times in an email.
But the “open door” language lends itself to ambiguity.
At a meeting of state party chairmen Wednesday, some with larger Democratic populations opined that an open primary might help them pull some voters in their direction. But most chairmen from red states felt it would be advantageous to close the door to Democrats in Republican primaries.
Mr. Armistead confirmed the substance of the meeting afterward. “I will use best practices that I heard from other states that have closed primaries to draft legislation for the Alabama Legislature when it goes back in session early next year,” Mr. Armistead said. “I believe after this election cycle is over, we will have much more support for closed primaries than ever before. I don’t plan to rest until we get this changed in Alabama.”
Conservative or not, almost all RNC members say the national party shouldn’t dictate to the states on most issues, except for dates of the presidential primaries and the quadrennial presidential nominating convention.
“I support the states’ right to choose open or closed primaries,” said RNC General Counsel John Ryder of Tennessee.
That’s hardly the issue in the argument, according RNC Standing Rules Committee Chairman Bruce Ash of Arizona.
“I endorse having only primaries that let only voters affiliated with a particular political party — you know, the ones with a chairman, a headquarters and people who actually run under a particular party affiliation,” Mr. Ash said.
Mr. Ash is not a fan of political independents — the bloc of voters both parties fight for in virtually every election.
“How could anyone in America today be truly politically independent if they have a brain or a heart?” Mr. Ash said. “If someone cannot make up their mind which side they are pulling for today, they probably lack a brain, a heart and can’t be trusted to cast a ballot intelligently.”
Mr. Ash agrees that federalism in the form of states’ rights and the reserved powers clause of the 10th Amendment to the Constitution are sacred to the GOP. That poses a problem: If state legislatures do not register voters by party affiliation, then the Republican Party in that state appears to be helpless to run a truly closed primary.
Some closed-party advocates argue, however, that political party rules trump state rules. Others dispute that interpretation.
But a Western-state RNC member had plans to introduce a resolution in Chicago that he thinks will rid the GOP of open primaries.
“The rule change would mandate membership dues in the Republican Party and a membership card to play in the GOP sandbox,” said Curly Haugland, North Dakota Republican National Committee member.
Some of his friends on the RNC think that only makes the GOP less attractive — more like a paid-membership country club than a political party or movement.
The question of openness can get hazy, too.
Mr. Barbour said his party’s goal “has been and is to grow our party. It is also to win the support of the majority of Independents. Neither party has the support of a majority of voters on a party-membership basis, and to win in November we must have the support of lots of people who do not self-identify as Republicans.”
“Thad Cochran got 766,000 votes in his last reelection,” Mr. Barbour said. “There are not 766,000 Republicans in Mississippi, but there are that many in the whole state electorate who will vote for a strong GOP candidate like Thad. We welcome all those voters, but understand they won’t all become Republicans.”
At primary election time, however, that would seem exactly what is wrong with the open-primary system, in the views of members such as Bruce Ash, Bill Armistead and Ed Martin.
The nuances may differ, but the attitudes of most Republicans is summed up by Michigan RNC member Dave Agema.
“A closed primary is necessary to prevent [Democrats] from nominating liberal candidates within our party.” Mr. Agema said. “When I see candidates in Michigan advertising that Democrats can vote for them and cross over, it indicates that that candidate is weak and desires his re-election more than the principles of the RNC platform and the will of the Republicans in that district.”