Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi defied almost every aspect of a primary run-off. He managed to win, something incumbents struggle to do in run-offs. As if that wasn’t astounding enough, he also managed to defy conventional wisdom by appealing to a voting bloc that tends to not vote for Republicans, being African Americans. The result increased turnout in the run-off compared to the general Republican primary by over 60,000 votes! Run-offs tend to have a more concentrated, extreme electorate, whether the extreme is far left or far right. But his victory isn’t without controversy; challenger Chris McDaniel believes that Democrats participated in the run-off, stealing victory from himself and unfairly rewarded Cochran for courting voters who aren’t Republicans.
McDaniel’s claims shouldn’t be brushed off immediately. Mississippi law allows an open primary system, meaning anyone may vote in a Democratic or Republican primary, even if they aren’t a registered member of the party. The catch is that once you participate in one primary, you may not participate in any run-offs for the other party during that election cycle. In other words, voting in the Democratic primary on June 3rd bars you from participating in the June 24th run-off. With increased turnout, especially from areas with high concentrations of African Americans, it isn’t crazy to say that Democrats most likely participated. The problem arises where there was such low turnout in the June 3rd Democratic primary, leaving many Democrats eligible to participate in the run-off. Additionally, McDaniel is beginning to create unsubstantiated numbers, citing “more than a thousand” irregularities in one county without any true evidence. Unless he finds hard evidence of actual voter fraud, and quickly, his numerical claims will become analogous to Joe McCarthy’s random numbers of the communists in the State Department.
The controversy continues to establish that Mississippi will go down in being the nastiest primary in 2014. Anyone who was surprised by the anger expressed by Chris McDaniel in his election night speech hasn’t paid close enough attention to him. He didn’t simply embody conservative principles; he held contempt for those who disagreed with him. Using the term “reaching across the aisle” in a pejorative sense should be a clear indicator that he really had no plan to change anything in Washington. But he demonstrates the scary reality that some individuals no longer view the other side as an American political party, but instead some kind of anti-American movement.
McDaniel seeks party purity, and voiced his disgust that individuals who weren’t Republicans voted. Mississippi law allows non-Republicans to vote, and many other states have open primaries. Including Mississippi, there are twenty states that utilize open primaries. If Mr. McDaniel is genuinely concerned about the issue, he should continue to push for a change in primary laws, regardless of the outcome of his race. I could get on board to a new type of election, but it wouldn’t be to eliminate open primaries in favor of closed primaries. Mississippi is the perfect case to show that both open and closed primaries do very little to improve the political climate.
I can say confidently that if Mississippi had a closed primary system, McDaniel would have crushed Cochran. This would have left Republicans with another candidate whose electability would be in question, and most likely would’ve made Mississippi a competitive state for Democrats. Had McDaniel been elected in November anyways, he would just contribute to the gridlock in Washington while pontificating his case for ideological purity; had he lost, it would have led to an even greater civil war between the Establishment GOP and the Tea Party. Meanwhile, we have seen that the open primary system has brought out an intraparty conflict, accusing their own of courting voters who aren’t the same ideologically, creating a narrative that compromise is not acceptable. Ironically, the rhetoric, coupled with Cochran’s strategy to mobilize Democratic voters, might just hand Democrats an environment to compete in Mississippi. So what should we do?
California and Louisiana have adopted a different form of primaries, a type that I think would moderate the extreme branches of the parties. Often referred to as the Jungle Primary, everyone runs on the same ballot, regardless of political affiliation. California has a jungle primary and then the top two will proceed to the November election. In Louisiana, it is a little different, as the primary is held in November, and the top two participate in a run-off only if no candidate can secure at least 50 percent of the vote. California’s system appears to be less chaotic, since Louisiana’s can allow a winner on the first ballot. But in an age where campaigns continue to run for more and more days, maybe it’d be nice to have that option; until someone doesn’t hit 50 percent and another month of campaigning begins.
Personally, I think California’s system is an easier transition for states to make. Candidates would need to appeal to the entire electorate, not just their own party. They would still need to identify their ideology and their stances, but they also would need to present ideas and demonstrate leadership. It wouldn’t be good enough just to say you’re a “true conservative”, you’d need to suggest your ideas and explain how you plan to implement them if elected to court votes against other conservatives, and show why your ideas are better than your liberal counterpart simultaneously. A system like this would require the two ends of the spectrum to interact with each other, or experience the fate of never making it past the primary. Independents would no longer sit on the sidelines, awaiting the parties to choose their candidates. Instead, they would be able to help make that choice without being demonized by the Chris McDaniels of the world, or being legally barred from participating in states with closed primaries.
Those who identify with the far left or far right will be opposed to this type of primary. It almost ensures that a candidate from the far end of the spectrum would lose in the general election. Too many moderates and independents would form a voting bloc with the political ideology of the less extreme candidate to defeat the extreme candidate. What they fail to realize is that their perfect candidate isn’t going to fulfill their wish list of ideas, but they will contribute greatly to the gridlock already present in politics. The difference between Legislators and Politicians is that one group intends to take care of their constituents by continuously making progress and maintaining government, while the other just wants to win elections. Jungle primaries can help individuals identify which group the candidates fall into. Maybe it will even challenge the two parties to moderate themselves, for fear a third party emerging. But that’s speculation for another day. The biggest deficit we face right now is our deficit of leadership, and any process to get more real legislators is worth an attempt to me.