Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Open Primary Trap Door

Someone – could it have been the ghost of Tom D’Amore? – has suggested that the Republican Party should open its primaries to unaffiliateds. An unaffiliated is someone who, for reasons not perfectly understood, does not wish to   formally affiliate with political parties.

Tom D’Amore, now entertaining Jacob Javits Republicans in Heaven, was Senator Lowell Weicker’s majordomo when Mr. Weicker was in Washington DC fighting the good fight against Reagan Republicans. For a time, Mr. D’Amore, at the insistence of Weicker, was the Republican Party Chairmen in Connecticut. As Chairman he pledged he would not preside over the destruction of the Connecticut GOP and then introduced the idea of permitting unaffiliateds to vote in Republican Party primaries, an idea that went over like a lead balloon,  once thoughtful Republicans had discovered that the idea would prevent Ronald Reagan conservatives from making inroads into the Connecticut GOP, perhaps heaving Mr. Weicker on the ash bin of history. As it turned out, Mr. Weicker was given the heave-ho by state Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliateds who preferred a real liberal Democrat, then Attorney General Joe Lieberman, to an uber-liberal Republican senator.

In 1984, the state GOP changed its party rules to allow unaffiliateds to vote in primary elections, but only for certain offices. This proposal, which ran afoul of the state’s primary law allowing only enrolled party members to vote in primaries, was challenged by Democrats. After having wended its way through various courts, the US Supreme Court ruled in 1986 that Connecticut’s closed primary law was unconstitutional.

The following year, the General Assembly constitutionalized the primary law by making certain alterations: unaffiliateds, under the altered provisions (PA 87-509), would be permitted to vote in primary elections; however, the parties would be able to decide whether unaffiliateds would be able to vote for primary candidates in all or only some of the contested offices, and no unaffiliated voter would be permitted to participate in more than one party primary on the same day. Currently, major party rules do not permit unaffiliateds to vote in primaries. For a short time, during the rule of D’Amore/Weicker, both the Republican Party and “A Connecticut Party,” the independent party under which Weicker ran for governor, permitted unaffiliateds to vote in primaries. Within the Republican Party, the permit was quickly revoked. 

Just as no good deed ever goes unpunished, so no bad idea is every totally expunged. On the face of it, permitting unaffiliateds to vote in Republican Party primaries would seem to be a bad idea for the best and most obvious of reasons: Unaffiliateds are not Republicans and therefore not bound to the party by ties of affection, reason or self-interest. The admission of unaffiliateds to the state GOP raises goose-bump questions:  Beyond voting in primaries, one cannot expect much help from party averse unaffiliateds in party building activities. Why should party slouches be permitted to drink the wine drawn from grapes others have toiled over? Since a primary is the principal means of appointing Republican defenders in general elections, why should Republicans permit unaffiliateds to affect their choices? Then too, allowing unaffiliateds behind the teller’s window exposes the bank vault to all sorts of chicanery. How many of the voting unaffiliateds would be, in truth, Democratic sappers trying to undermine Republican campaigns?

It’s one of those suicidal notions that ought to have been dead on arrival. Shortly after Mr. D’Amore laid the proposition before state Republicans, it WAS dead on arrival. But perhaps to amuse everyone or to satisfy the inordinate demands of Connecticut’s left of center media, Chairman of the Republican Party Jerry Labriola has now decided to submit the notion to a study committee, usually the graveyard of bad ideas.

A rule change allowing open primaries may weaken the Republican Party, perhaps fatally. It was generally thought during Weicker’s long reign in the Congress that people who drifted into the unaffiliated slot did so because both parties had become radicalized; to people like Weicker and D’Amore, unaffiliateds represented a vast pool of untapped moderates. But the whole nature of politics – especially in Connecticut – has changed in the intervening years. Within the state Democratic Party, progressives have pushed moderates out of office, while the activist wing of the Republican Party has been clipped by progressive proponents and their facilitators. An open primary system would simply cut the buds of a conservative alternative in Connecticut that a) has never been tried, and b) has never been found wanting. The chief problem with the Republican Party is its thoughtless timidity . To vary a phrase of Barry Goldwater’s – timidity in the face of utter dissolution is no virtue. In the future, the Connecticut GOP will either develop organically along conservative lines that have been successful in other states, or it will remain the party of Weicker, D’Amore and trembling quislings among the commentariate

Here’s hoping the committee will lend an ear to the open primary trap door and give the proposal a quick and respectable public burial.
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