The Case for Reforming Primaries

Ever since the Democrat Party has succeeded in promoting cultural and economic Marxism over the past half-century, the Republican Party, with rare exceptions, has failed to serve as a counter-balance. Over the past few years, this dichotomy has reached critical mass, in which Democrats are now able to win 50-year culture war battles without even firing a shot. We conservatives are left without a party that fights for conservatism on any level, even among the state and federal officials in the reddest states, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of Republican primary voters agree with conservatives on the issues. There are only a handful of Republicans that are willing to fight for anything, but they are too marginalized to affect any change. It is incontrovertibly clear that we need a new party.

The age old question is how do we start a new party out of nothing? The short answer is that we begin by operating as a third party within the Republican Party by defeating incumbent Republicans and replacing them with conservatives who will remain loyal to the Constitution.

The reason conservatives have failed at replacing incumbents is because the ability of the grassroots to knock off incumbents in primaries has been such a dismal failure. I’m here to warn everyone that this cycle of failure will continue unless we succeed in returning the nomination process, at least for congressional elections, to representative forms of state conventions instead of media-driven popular primary contests. That is the only way to place everyone on an equal playing field and elect enough committed conservatives in a short enough time period to either take over the Republican Party nationally or have a large enough platform from which to launch a new party.

The Failure to Win Primaries

The level of betrayal and the degree of perfidy among Republicans elected on a both the state and federal level is so bad that we can’t even fight the most extreme policies of the Left in the most conservative states, much less in Washington, D.C. And yes, despite the “rebellious” electorate looking for change, every single House and Senate incumbent has been re-nominated and the Establishment has won most of the open seats this cycle.

What gives?

Knocking off incumbents in House races in nearly impossible and doing so in a Senate race is virtually impossible. And for a variety of factors, it has become even harder in recent years. Waiting to change the party quickly enough through primary challenges under the existing rigged system would work as well as trying to drink a big gulp with a fork.

It can truly be said that just one individual over the past 100 years has successfully challenged a sitting elected Republican senator from the Right in a direct popular primary and came out stable enough to win the general election. Yes, it happened only once in the century since the progressives replaced party conventions with popular primaries: Alfonse D’ Amato beating incumbent Senator Jacob Javits in New York in 1980. And even that race was an anomaly because Javits was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease before running for reelection. Also, it’s not like D’ Amato was Ted Cruz in terms of his commitment to conservatism.

The only other time a right-leaning challenger won a primary and general election was when Sam Brownback knocked off RINO Sheila Frahm in 1996 in Kansas, but Frahm had just been appointed to the seat a few months prior and was never elected. Bob Smith was knocked off by John Sununu in New Hampshire in 2002, but that proves our point: Smith had lost the support of the party establishment and Sununu challenged him from the Left with the support of the media and the elite donors. Joe Miller in Alaska and Richard Mourdock in Indiana are the only two recent success stories in primaries, but they both failed to close the deal in the general election because they were so weakened and undermined by the party.

Thus, we’ve come full circle whereby the popular vote process put into place last century by the progressives in order to weaken the party establishment and “empower the people” has actually ensured that the party hacks always win and the true will of the people always loses. This is exactly what our Founders feared in a pure democracy over a representative republic.

It is even harder for conservatives to win primaries nowadays for a number of reasons:

1. While in the old days a lot of people were uninformed, now millions of people are misinformed by the mass weapon of dis-information that has become ubiquitous in mass media. Election results in presidential and Senate primaries are directly related to media coverage and name recognition. Further, there is simply no way for a constitutional conservative to talk over the soap opera narrative of the campaign with serious issues. Whether its Megyn Kelly’s endless saga with Donald Trump in the presidential election or “the nursing home scandal” in the 2014 Mississippi Senate primary, conservatives cannot break through the media’s chosen focus of an election and direct people’s attention to the issues and records of the candidates.

2. Everyone wants to know why your ‘ordinary Joe-six pack’ can’t win an election. The answer is simple. With the growth of the country, even a single House district covers over 700,000 people and a Senate seat almost always represents millions. Again, elections are not about ideas, but money and name recognition. In presidential and Senate elections it is all about the media coverage. In House races, it’s all about paid media. Ordinary conservatives seeking to challenge the system simply cannot get their message out even in most open seats, much less when challenging an incumbent, in order to reach “the masses.” With few exceptions, they lack the requisite sources for funding their campaign. “Letting the people decide” party nominees has resulted in letting the media and money decide.

3. Unlike during the few successful primary challenges in the past, incumbent RINOs no longer run as Rockefeller Republicans. They all run as conservatives and have more money to get their message out when they run as self-described conservatives. Indeed, they often paint the challengers as less than conservative. Coupled with name recognition and support from the media, it’s impossible for most voters to connect the right candidate with their preferred views. In fact, I’ve witnessed liberal Republicans who support retaining Obamacare and bailouts win reelection because they have the support of the special interests precisely because of those views, yet they use the money to convince voters that they are just the opposite! This is elective despotism at its core.

4. Even open seats are hard for conservatives to win. Given that almost all Republicans run as conservatives, the one with the most money usually wins the open House seat and the one with the most money and favorable media coverage wins the Senate seat. That almost never works in the favor of a constitutional conservative candidate.

The net result is that conservatives pick off a Senate seat once a decade, knock off an incumbent House member once or twice a cycle, and win perhaps one open Senate seat and 5-7 open House seats per cycle. Because they are too few in numbers to have a significant impact on the party or the legislative process, half of the “good guys” get picked off by the establishment within a year or two in office. What we are doing now is clearly not working. The Left is winning 50-year cultural battles in the bat of an eyelash and all these Republicans, who run on the promise to counter this social transformation, will do nothing to lift a finger and will often side with Democrats depending on the issue. Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) was just re-nominated to represent Republicans in North Carolina, even as he sides with the transgendered mafia on one of the most extreme issues. Yet, he has millions of dollars from K Street to run as a conservative and drown out any competition.

The near impossibility of winning against an incumbent and the arduous nature of standing out in an open seat has created a brain drain in which talented and impressive conservatives have no interest in running for office. We have a lot of good long-term and short-term constitutional reform ideas but we can never implement them if we don’t have men and women on the field in elected office.

Direct Primaries: An Enduring Progressive Legacy

Direct primaries are not something that should be defended by conservatives; the practice should be rigorously scorned and overturned. Until the turn of the 20th century, party nominees for president and Congress were chosen at state conventions. Obviously, many of these conventions had their own problems and were often dominated be party oligarchs in what was notoriously referred to as “smoke-filled rooms.” But instead of reforming the convention process to be more in line with representative democracy – a grassroots precinct-level endeavor similar to what Utah uses to this day – the progressives succeeded in transforming the nominating process for congressional elections to direct popular vote contests within a decade.

Until 1912, most states still used the convention method during presidential elections, but that changed with the emergence of Teddy Roosevelt as the progressive leader. As Professor Sidney Milkis, a noted scholar on the progressive era, observed, Roosevelt’s “crusade made universal use of the direct primary, a cause célèbre.” Roosevelt went on to win most of the primaries, but conservative Howard Taft won the states that still had conventions and therefore won the party’s nomination at the national convention. However, Roosevelt’s views lived on through the election of Woodrow Wilson. It’s no coincidence that progressives succeeded at changing the nominating process precisely as the “newly emergent mass media” became dominant in our political culture, as Milkis puts it.

Sound familiar to our time? Mass media and campaign advertisements determining the nominee among “the people?” As one groups of political scientists declared in a 2004 study on the effects of direct primaries, “the direct primary stands as one of the most significant and distinctive political reforms of the Progressive era in America.” While the 17th Amendment is what allowed progressives to ensure half the country would elect senators in line with the views the elites use to manipulate the masses, the institution of direct primaries ensured that even in conservative states only progressive Republicans would be able to survive the money/media/name recognition juggernaut. 100 years later, with a progressive oligarchy in Washington, they can declare mission accomplished.

But Aren’t Conventions Smoked Filled Rooms?

Progressive proponents of direct popular vote primaries complain that conventions allow the party hacks to choose the nominees behind the doors of “smoke filled rooms” without the input of the people. And undoubtedly in some states in the 1800s that is exactly what happened. But the convention model we are speaking of – “the Utah style convention” – achieves the perfect middle ground between the tyranny at both ends of the spectrum from oligarchy to pure democracy.

In Utah, every neighborhood holds a caucus meeting where people who are familiar with each other debate and discuss the races at hand. They select a delegate to represent the precinct at the convention. In the Beehive State, there are 4,000 delegates – all selected by the people in a process that tends to attract high information voters. This is true representative democracy our Founders envisioned, one which would foster an informed patriotism.

The benefits of representative conventions to choose party nominees include the following:

In most states the selection process would be dominated by grassroots activists.

Money and media would play a relatively minimal role in choosing the nominee.

Conservatives could put numerous Senate seats and dozens of House seats in play per cycle in the 25 more conservative states. The threat of numerous senators and House members in the South and Great Plains knowing that a Mike Lee-style conservative could down them at a convention the same way Senator Bob Bennett was defeated in Utah could instantly change their behavior. At present, primary challenges are so unsuccessful they rarely serve as a deterrent in the long-run.

The prospect of winning with a grassroots ground game, without the need for a massive money and media campaign, would attract better conservative talent to run for office.

The requirement to show up for precinct caucuses would automatically end the odious practice of “early voting” in primaries, which not only has a disruptive effect in fluid presidential primaries, but hurts insurgent congressional candidates who tend to surge during the final week – after “voting” has already begun.

Selecting state government officials through conventions would help build up a cadre of state governments that push back against federal tyranny. At present, Republicans control the trifecta of state government in 23 states, yet conservatives cannot count on a single state to consistently fight for conservative values because either the governor or state legislative leaders are part of the GOP establishment black hole.

Our Founders left us a republic – one which was divided between the rights of the individual and the powers of the states and federal government. The federal government itself was divided into three branches, which were supposed to serve as checks and balances against each other. That system has gradually been replaced with a political party system. Conservatives can’t even rely on a conservative party to save us, even as the federalist system has collapsed.

While our Founders obviously prescribed no rules and conditions on party nominations, given that party politics has replaced the original system of governance, shouldn’t we at least replicate their ideal of representative democracy at the party level? Changing back to conventions in states where Republicans reliably win the general election will serve as a back door avenue to repealing the 17th Amendment without going through the nearly-impossible process.

In the long run we must work towards restoring our original republican form of government, but in order to implement those ideas we must first secure our men and women on the field and win over the current party system. Representative conventions are the only achievable means of restoring that system and serving as a force multiplier for more enduring reforms in the future. (For more from the author of “The Case for Reforming Primaries” please click HERE)

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