Clear the field, or contest the primary? 
Saturday, April 2, 2005 at 01:35PM
Political Mammal in Politics

As a Democratic partisan, I am fascinated by candidate selection and primary politics—how to recruit and nominate the best candidates for office; whether to aim for the strongest general election candidate, or an appealing outsider, or the most ideologically compatible; whether a vigorous primary is a good thing for democracy or a costly mess to be avoided. The calculus for picking the right candidate is complicated, includes many factors, and is subject to contentious argument and should often simply be put in the hands of the voters.

In the recruitment or early candidate selection stage, however, power often enters the arena. Elected officials, state or national party committees, political consultants, and other influential people often seek to anoint a candidate who they think would make the best nominee and “clear the field” for him or her. It is a rare candidate that does not try to line up such activity, but supporters of those who are not the beneficiaries of these power plays are rightly bothered.

I just read a post on this subject with respect to the Rhode Island U.S. Senate race by Bob Brigham at Swing State Project . By way of background: Congressmen Jim Langevin and Patrick Kennedy have said that they are not running for Senator Chafee’s seat, so it looks like the Rhode Island Democrats will choose between Matt Brown, their Secretary of State, and Sheldon Whitehouse, former state Attorney General and U.S. Attorney.

Brigham fingers party bosses for attempting to anoint Whitehouse and push Brown from the race. He faults state Democratic Party Chairman William Lynch for saying "It's never a good thing to have primaries"—contending that taking such a position is tantamount to t he State Party coming out against democracy. (Something similar may be taking place in the Pennsylvania Senate race where Bob Casey for U.S. Senate, to the dismay of supporters of Chuck Pennacchio, seems be benefiting from the support of those who think he represents the best general election chance against Senator Rick Santorum.)

I am sympathetic to Brigham’s point of view that the role of the voter should not be usurped, but at times I have been very pleased to see the party leadership and other elected officials take an active role in supporting the person they feel is the strongest candidate.

Last cycle, for example, in the Senate race in my home stateof Colorado, state Attorney General Ken Salazar benefited from a robust perception that he would be strongest candidate in a tough general election. Several other potential candidates stepped aside for him, and the party leaned hard against Mike Miles, an accomplished progressive, a good campaigner, and favorite among activists. Miles did not get a fair shake, but Salazar’s victory was one of our few bright spots in November. I really doubt that Miles would have won the general, though I am sure there are some who would disagree with me. (Note: there seem to have been consequences for the state party leadership, as Miles supporters recently and narrowly ousted the Colorado state party chair.)

So where do I stand on this? I do not like it when my candidate has to fight against a myopic machine – especially if the candidate who is the anointed choice is one I really do not like. I want the voters to decide—the direct primary is so much more appealing an innovation than the smoke-filled room of old.

On the other hand, I do think it is the job of responsible party leaders to steer the right candidates to seek the right office; to facilitate negotiations among them and avoid unwise clashes; to discourage the less qualified or less likely to win; and generally to seek to maximize our party’s chances of victory in the general election. I am happy when I see organization and coordination and even some strong-arming taking place that gives our side an advantage.

If I become a state party chair (unlikely), I will think about how these decisions play in the other party. In a close race, I would generally rather the Republicans nominate a beatable conservative ideologue than a moderate who would be much tougher. I would enjoy bloody Republican primaries and seek to avoid them on ours. But I would also try to support a fair fight for the nomination among our strongest contenders when appropriate.

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