• Seth Masket

Ending the Primary?


Colorado Republican Assembly in 2018. (Denver Post)

More than a few reformers over the past few years have suggested that one of the big problems in the American party system is that the parties have become too internally democratic. Decades of turning key party decisions over to primary electorates and backing away from expressing any preferences in nomination contests have left the parties aimless, unpredictable, and vulnerable to takeover by demagogues.


The key obstacle to parties taking back that power, however, has always been that it's hard to stick the democratic genie back in the bottle. Once party rank and file voters have a taste of that power, they're not going to give it up, and party decisions made without their consent would lack legitimacy. Now, it turns out that parties grant power to voters and then take it away again with considerable regularity. But these moves are usually small -- making primaries easier or harder to participate in, switching between caucuses and primaries, etc.


Colorado's Republican Party is now considering a much larger change: to get rid of the primary altogether, and let the party’s conventions pick its nominees. They're going to vote on this proposal this Saturday.


A bit of background: Five years ago, Colorado voters passed two initiatives (Propositions 107 and 108) that switched the state to an all-mail open primary system. Under these rules, unaffiliated voters are permitted to choose which party primary to participate in. Unaffiliated voters comprise 43 percent of active voters in Colorado, and candidates obviously want to reach these voters.


Yet the parties back in 2016 fought those initiatives because they were concerned about party raiders -- basically bad-faith activists and voters seeking to steer the other party’s nomination contests toward less electable candidates.


At least so far, there hasn’t been much evidence of party raiding. In last year’s Democratic US Senate primary, for example, unaffiliated voters were modestly less enthusiastic about John Hickenlooper than registered Democrats were, but still preferred him to Andrew Romanoff by wide margins. In the 3rd congressional district, there’s not much evidence that the unaffiliated delivered Lauren Boebert’s primary victory over incumbent Scott Tipton last year. There just aren’t many races where restricting the primary to party registrants would produce much different results.


In large part, this is because “independent” voters are, in fact, usually pretty partisan; they just prefer not to identify themselves that way. Take this profile of Colorado’s 3rd district, in which one Grand Junction voter describes himself by saying, “I prefer to call myself an independent. I am an educated person. I can make my own decisions.” He also notes that he has voted Republican in every election for more than a decade and professes his support for Boebert. Independence is an identity, rather than a description of his actions or beliefs.


Still, party leaders worry about these primary elections. Under the state’s laws, a party can opt out of this primary system if they want to, but it requires the support of 75 percent of the state party’s county central committees. A faction within the state Republican Party is currently trying to do that during this weekend's meeting of the state Central Committee. If they succeed, the party will only nominate candidates via convention.


What would this mean? There’s a longstanding strain in the political science literature suggesting that party leaders are actually more moderate than a party’s most passionate activists. Party leaders, after all, tend to be more motivated by winning elections than activists are, and may tend to prefer more moderate candidates.

But that doesn’t really describe what’s been going on in Colorado. Rather, we’re seeing something of a factional dispute within the party’s leadership. Part of the party (led by radio host and publisher Chuck Bonniwell) wants to steer the party rightward by getting rid of the primary, leaving nomination decisions in the hands of a more conservative group of party leaders and convention delegates. Another part of the party (led by more establishment types like former party chair Dick Wadhams and former District Attorney George Brauchler) wants to see the party nominate more electable candidates in the hope of making it more competitive statewide, and they figure keeping primary voters in the mix is the way to do that.


Actually getting the votes together in the state Central Committee to get rid of the primary is a pretty steep hurdle. But if it happens, we’ll get a chance to see just what party leaders can do when they get to make decisions again.


A version of this piece appeared in the August 20, 2021 Denver Post.

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