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When Parties Can’t Control Primaries

Eric Greitens splits the Republican party, Trump notches another win and Texas Democrats are betting on Beto.

Eric Greitens
Eric Greitens (TNS)
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When Parties Can’t Control Primaries: Eric Greitens had to resign as governor of Missouri in 2018 after having tied up his mistress and taken a nude photo of her in what turned into a revenge porn scandal. He also faced an ethics investigation for misusing a veterans charity donor list for political purposes. More recently, he’s faced domestic abuse allegations in a custody battle with his wife. Despite all this, Greitens is the front-runner to win the GOP nomination for an open U.S. Senate seat in the Aug. 2 primary.

National and state Republican officials have been appalled at the prospect of Greitens winning the party’s nod, worrying his reputation might cost the party a winnable seat. A Republican super PAC spent upward of $1 million on advertising trying to stop him. Still, Greitens has either led or been tied in polls all year.

The problem for the party is that the anti-Greitens vote is split. Josh Hawley, who holds the state’s other Senate seat, has endorsed Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler. But former President Donald Trump gave Hartzler an “anti-endorsement” earlier this month, posting on his social media site Truth Social that he couldn’t support her. Hartzler and state Attorney General Eric Schmitt are essentially tied in polls, splitting the non-Greitens vote, with three other candidates further fracturing the field. (Trump recently called Greitens “tough” and “smart” but has not endorsed him, in part due to heavy lobbying from Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel and other officials.)

There’s no clear alternative standing between Greitens and the nomination. This dynamic has been playing out in other states this year. Next door in Kansas, Republican leaders would prefer that Kris Kobach not win the primary for state attorney general on Aug. 2. Kobach gained national prominence as secretary of state by pushing hard lines on voting rights and immigration, but he’s a lightning rod for controversy and ran a lackluster campaign for governor in 2018, losing to Democrat Laura Kelly. “The Republican Party is desperate to avoid him being a candidate again, but the party couldn’t coalesce behind a single opponent,” says Neal Allen, who chairs the political science department at Wichita State University.

Although this is an era of strong partisanship, the parties themselves, as institutions, are quite weak. Where party bosses were once able to vet and hand-select candidates, they’ve turned into virtual bystanders. Candidates and super PACs raise their own money, and primary voters are ultimately in control of the nomination process. “When you have a primary system, it’s very difficult for the party to coordinate alternatives,” says Ian Shapiro, a political scientist at Yale University. “The party has no way of winnowing these people down because anybody can run.”

There are plenty of incentives for politicians to get into races. Even if they’re bound to lose, they can raise their own profiles and raise money. On Tuesday, former New York Mayor Bill de Blasio bowed out of a Democratic primary for Congress. He never had a chance of winning, but he raised about $700,000 that he can now use to retire old campaign and legal debts. This is no surprise, but for the type of people eager to campaign, ego is involved, and no one seems much interested in stepping aside for the good of the team. “It’s essentially like a bunch of six-year-olds playing soccer,” Shapiro says. “They all just run for the ball, and nobody can stop them.”

Shapiro notes that primary turnout tends to be low, meaning a smaller electorate made up of the most motivated voters – who tend to fall along the far ends of the ideological spectrum – end up making the choices, leaving the bulk of voters often unsatisfied with their picks. “The great majority of seats now are safe seats,” he says. “The great majority of states are safe states. You’ve got small number of activists deciding who these candidates are going to be.”

Parties have long recognized that if all the action that matters take place in primaries, they need to make sure to come up with winners that reflect the desires of most party voters. That’s why so many Southern states – completely dominated by Democrats throughout the 20th century and mostly dominated by Republicans now – hold runoff elections, to make sure their eventual nominees command majority support. And it’s why there’s now informal talk among Republicans about embracing ranked-choice voting in some buyer’s remorse states such as Kansas where they’re concerned about the quality of their nominees.

Republicans have generally been opposed to the idea of ranked-choice voting (RCV), a system that allows voters to pick multiple candidates and rank them according to preference. Under RCV, however, the eventual nominee has to win majority support. “By nominating candidates who break the 50 percent threshold against their strongest opponent, RCV increases voter buy-in,” says Rob Richie, president of FairVote, a nonprofit organization that promotes the method. “Even if they didn’t rank the nominee first, more than 60 percent of them typically will have ranked the winner somewhere high on their ballot.”

The Virginia Republican Party used RCV at its convention last year to pick its gubernatorial nominee. It was a divided field, but the party ended up plenty happy with its nominee for governor, Glenn Youngkin, who now holds the office. "Using ranked-choice voting in party-run nomination contests in Virginia has dramatically improved the precision and quality of Republican campaigns,” says Rich Anderson, who chairs the state GOP. “Early on, Republicans noted a decidedly positive change in the tenor and tone of our statewide campaigns, culminating in Glenn Youngkin's astonishing success last November.”
Dan Cox
Dan Cox (TNS)
Trump Notches Another Win: Of course, there are factions within parties. Not everyone agrees who the best eventual candidate would be. That was made abundantly clear by Tuesday’s Republican primary in Maryland.

Trump endorsed state Del. Dan Cox, who defeated former state Commerce Secretary Kelly Schulz. Cox is an election denier who attended Trump’s Jan. 6, 2021, rally protesting Joe Biden’s victory. Schulz had the full backing of term-limited Gov. Larry Hogan, who warned that Cox would be a sure loser in the fall. The Democratic Governors Association agreed, spending heavily in the primary in hopes GOP voters would reward them with Cox, their preferred candidate – a risky strategy they’ve pursued in several states this year.

No matter how deep the primary divide, most of the party faithful tend to rally around the eventual nominee. That appears to be happening in Pennsylvania, where Doug Mastriano, another election denier, won the GOP nomination for governor after the party failed to consolidate support behind a single alternative. (The DGA gave him a boost also.) Most Republican voters look like they’ve already made their peace with Mastriano, who is polling within the margin of error against Democratic state Attorney General Josh Shapiro.

But Cox faces a steeper climb in Maryland, a state so blue that Biden carried it by 33 points in 2020. It appears likely that Cox will face Wes Moore, an author and former nonprofit executive, who holds a healthy lead on the Democratic side. The race has not been called, with mail-in ballots still being counted, but Moore’s main opponents split votes regionally, with former Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez doing relatively well in the Washington, D.C., suburbs and Annapolis and Comptroller Peter Franchot performing better around Baltimore and in rural areas.

Moore is Black. Assuming he wins, he’ll be only the third African American elected as governor in the nation’s history, following Doug Wilder in Virginia in 1989 and Deval Patrick in Massachusetts in 2006. A couple of others have assumed the position but not been elected, including David Patrick of New York in 2008.
Beto O’Rourke
Beto O’Rourke (TNS)
Betting on Beto: Democrats keep hoping they can turn Texas blue. It hasn’t happened. In fact, the party hasn’t won a statewide office there for a quarter of a century now.

Beto O’Rourke is hoping to end that streak. The former congressman came within 3 percentage points of unseating U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018. Following his abortive presidential run in 2020, he’s worked on building the party in his home state and is now the nominee for governor against Greg Abbott, the Republican seeking a third term this fall.

Events in Texas have helped O’Rourke gain some momentum. Abbott’s poll numbers have been hurt by the state’s six-week abortion ban, particularly in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, as well as the school shooting in Uvalde. In addition, the state’s continuing problems keeping the power on have been tough politically for the incumbent.

Democratic donors clearly believe O’Rourke has a real chance. He’s raised more money than Abbott since last November, bringing in $27.6 million between late February and the end of June – the most ever by a Texas candidate in an equivalent filing period. O’Rourke has received about a half-million dollars more from small donors (who gave less than $200) than Abbott, while his campaign finance disclosure report, filed on Tuesday, showed that he’s also received three million-dollar checks, including one from liberal billionaire and frequent Democratic donor George Soros.

For all that, this is a Republican year and Texas is a Republican state. A poll released last week by the University of Houston found that Abbott holds a five point lead among likely voters. “Beto is still on the outside looking in, but not completely dead in the water,” says Mark P. Jones, a political scientist at Rice University. “The problem for him is that inflation is more important to Texas voters than abortion or gun control.”

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Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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