How Reasonable Candidates Become Partisan Fighters - Open Primaries
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How Reasonable Candidates Become Partisan Fighters

Posted by Russell Daniels on February 21, 2020 at 12:33 PM

How Reasonable Candidates Become Partisan Fighters

by Neal Simon

Recently, two people who want to help our country advance came to me for advice about running for Congress. One, whom I’ll call Mary, is just left of center on social issues but considers herself a fiscal conservative. She grew up a Republican, but is now a Democrat. John, who labels himself a moderate Republican, is just right of center. He spoke of common sense solutions that satisfy many diverse stakeholders.

If Mary and John ever met, they would probably be friends. If they were both elected to the House of Representatives in a functional political system, they could work together effectively on behalf of their constituents and the American people as a whole.

But John and Mary each know that in order to have a chance of getting elected, they need to show their usefulness as partisan warriors, not bridge builders. In other words, they could solve problems together now, say, if they worked on a business deal together, but if they want to get elected in our political system they’ll need to become more and more adept at demonizing each other. 

This is a defect caused by the combination of closed primaries, a broken system of funding campaigns, and a two-party system where the parties make the rules. John is in a “lock Republican” district, where the only relevant election is the Republican primary, an election closed to anyone but pre-registered Republicans, and he knows that the only voters that matter are the “base voters” who show up to vote in the primary. In his district, Democrats and independents are excluded from the election altogether. Mary, a Democrat, faces a similar situation in her district.

Both candidates are also well aware that to raise the money their campaigns will need to win, they’ll need to indicate that they are ready, willing, and able to put their party ahead of their constituents. Having seen my 2018 independent U.S. Senate campaign raise over $1.8 million, they both asked me for advice on “moderate” sources of campaign funds but were disappointed by the limited list interested in primary fights from the center. The system is designed to turn good people like John and Mary into partisans. That’s how you win in today’s politics. 

In order to survive their party primaries, they’ll need to make a deal (the first of many) with the devil: to get the money that will get them polling well, they’ll need to agree to every last one of a list of demands, given them by special interests within their respective parties. To get money, they’ll be forced to violate their own consciences and agree to promote and vote for every one of the all-or-nothing positions of, say, the US Chamber of Commerce (John) or The League of Conservation Voters (Mary), no matter how much nuance or room for innovation they may see.

By the time they get elected, now as Democrat and Republican, they’d have moved so far apart they could no longer have a conversation. In fact, their respective caucuses will applaud and reward them for refusing to work with political opponents to find solutions. Regardless of your party affiliation, I think you can see that’s a bad result. Closed primaries produce candidates who have to put party ahead of principle, and they force independents who want to participate to join a party against their conscience.

No single reform changes this overnight. We need a big overhaul. Nonpartisan primaries are one way to start. Let all voters vote for whomever they want in the primaries, not just the general election. Imagine if the path to victory for Mary and John included appealing to independents, moderates, and members of the other party, rather than only the hard core partisan interest groups within their own party. That would change politics dramatically and create room for even more systemic change.

We need the John’s and Mary’s of the world working for us, not the special interests. 



Neal Simon is the author of Contract to Unite America: Ten Reforms to Reclaim Our Republic (RealClear Publishing), available for pre-order on Amazon now and available nationwide February 18.

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