Party Primaries Are a Problem for the GOP

West Virginia Senate candidate Don Blankenship speaks during a debate on Fox News, May 1, 2018. (Fox News/YouTube)
Ideologically motivated primary voters keep nominating dud candidates who can’t win general elections.

Tomorrow, Republican voters in West Virginia head to the polls to decide who will be the party’s nominee in the Senate contest against Senator Joe Manchin. Manchin is a longtime figure in the Mountain State, but as a Democrat in one of the most pro-Trump places in the country, he is vulnerable.

Three main Republican candidates are in competition. There is Representative Evan Jenkins, a member of Congress from West Virginia’s third congressional district; Attorney General Patrick Morrisey; and Don Blankenship, a former coal-mining executive who went to prison for his part in the Upper Big Branch disaster, which led to the deaths of more than two dozen miners.

No doubt, it would be imprudent for West Virginia Republicans to nominate Blankenship. Yet the party establishment is worried that this is precisely what they will do tomorrow. Blankenship has been spending millions of dollars of his own money on  television, while Morrisey and Jenkins have mostly attacked each other. Public polling has shown Jenkins in the lead, but it is sparse, and reports of private polling suggest that Blakenship is surging at the last minute.

It is possible that Blankenship, should he be nominated, could win the general election against Manchin. But West Virginia offers perhaps the most promising chance for the GOP to pick up a Senate seat in November, and nominating a character like Blankenship would be a blessing for the Democrats. On top of his criminal conviction, Blankenship has also said extremely racist things in the last few weeks. So, even if he won, his presence in the Senate would be an embarrassment to Senate Republicans.

It’s easy to blame the voters of West Virginia for this mess. They should know better than to give a former convict a shot at the GOP nomination for the Senate. One might also blame the party elites in Washington, D.C., who should have worked more forcefully to prevent Blankenship from standing a chance in the first place.

Without discounting either of those causes, I want to shed light on the institutional aspect of this situation. Namely, the prevalence of party primaries has of late lent itself to the rise of unacceptable candidates who either cannot win the general election or do not reflect the views and values of the majority of self-identified partisans. The problem can in theory affect either party, but it seems to be causing more trouble for Republicans, who would do well to think seriously about whether they should continue to allow their nominees to be chosen through primary elections.

The more democracy, the better . . . right? In practice, democracy has proven deeply problematic, especially in recent years.

Primaries are hardly essential for deciding political nominations. In fact, parties existed for roughly a century before the advent of party primaries — candidates were instead chosen by instruments like nominating conventions. The quadrennial presidential conventions are a holdover from this era, when state-party officials from around the country would gather together in some centralized location (such as Chicago or St. Louis) to choose the presidential and vice-presidential nominees.

But rampant corruption in the political parties by the end of the 19th century led to a desire for reform. One of the solutions proposed was to replace conventions with primaries. The idea was that opening the party up to voters would help root out the corruption that was threatening the republic. It happened slowly, but over the course of the 20th century, primaries became the principal means of nominating candidates for almost all federal offices (a handful of state conventions and caucuses here and there notwithstanding).

In theory, this switch was very sensible. The more democracy, the better . . . right? That was certainly the animating spirit of the Progressive era that spearheaded primaries. In practice, however, the process has proven deeply problematic, especially in recent years.

Voters have proven themselves ill-equipped for the challenge of sorting the wheat from the chaff during primaries.

For starters, it forces the party to spend an inordinate amount of time and resources on what is really an intramural battle, the wounds from which may not mend in time for the general election against the real opposition.

Worse, voters have proven themselves ill-equipped for the challenge of sorting the wheat from the chaff during primaries. The main civic function of a party label is that it provides voters with information about what a candidate might do in office. Most voters, even if they do not pay much attention to politics, have a basic grasp of what the Democrats and the Republicans stand for. So, in a general election, they have the requisite information to make the choice that reflects their interests. But party labels are meaningless in primaries, so low-information voters sometimes respond to the candidate who spends the most money, says the most outrageous things, or has the highest profile, whether or not he is a good choice.

Moreover, turnout in primaries is abysmally low, which can give an advantage to ideological purists and extremists. Primary electorates amount to just a fraction of the voting-eligible population, so high-interest ideologues, though relatively small in number, can nominate a candidate who is either too extreme to win the general election, or who is ill-suited for the natural give-and-take that should attend actual governance.

Additionally, primary contests are overseen by state governments, which have their own set of rules that may or may not be amenable to the selection of a good candidate who reflects the values of the party’s voters.

In the case of the West Virginia Republican primary, for instance, there is no runoff if a candidate wins less than half the vote. In a two-person race, this is not really a problem. But there are three major candidates vying for the GOP nomination in West Virginia, as well as a handful of minor candidates. Employing a “first past the post” rule in a multi-candidate field greatly increases the chances that the victor will win much less than half the vote — and may therefore not reflect the sentiment of the broader party. So Blankenship could win tomorrow even though a large majority of West Virginia Republicans think he is a bad choice.

I hope that Blankenship loses tomorrow. But even if he does, the fact that he has come this close to winning the nomination for a Senate seat in a competitive state should be a wake-up call. Put bluntly, party primaries are a problem, especially for Republicans. Party officials, conservative intellectuals, and average voters need to confront this fact — the sooner, the better — and begin thinking through ways to protect the GOP from morally or ideologically unfit nominees.

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Jay Cost is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the Center for Faith and Freedom at Grove City College.


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