My news conference Sincerity Meter isn’t foolproof. But it registered a high positive score last Tuesday when Republican Party state Chairman Keith Downey said that the prospect of two or more high-profile GOP primary contests this summer shouldn’t tamp down participation in Tuesday evening’s precinct caucuses.
“I see it as a positive in terms of our caucuses,” Downey said of the primary possibilities this year. “I’m a fan of strong caucuses, a strong endorsement and a strong primary. I think people are best served when candidates who think they are the best fit [for the office] pursue that to the full extent of what they want.”
That sunny take on the larger-than-usual challenge that looms for the GOP endorsement system this year might have been the bravado of a fellow who’s been striving valiantly for the last 10 months to pull his party out of the ditch. Doubt has been cast on the relevance and value of the party endorsement by a pair of serious candidates, Scott Honour for governor and Mike McFadden for U.S. Senate — both businessmen with fundraising prowess that the state GOP must envy — and hints from a few others that an endorsement defeat might not end their campaigns.
Of course, Downey is going to counsel Republicans not to sit out the caucuses just because they might get a real choice for a change in the Aug. 12 primary. He needs a decent turnout Tuesday night to validate and accelerate his work.
But the former Edina state representative isn’t trying to revive the Grand Old Party. He’s trying to build a 21st-century model. And he’s evidently noticed that Brand X doesn’t seem afraid of primary challenges to endorsed candidates anymore — and it’s been winning elections. That’s how DFL Gov. Mark Dayton arrived in both his current office and his previous one, the U.S. Senate. No-endorsement primaries seem to work for the DFL, too. Witness the 2012 victory of U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan in the Eighth District.
Downey refuses to cower at the mention of GOP primaries. He’s preaching that a modern party should open its doors to strong candidates, regardless of their regard for the endorsement process — then make sure that the endorsement process yields strong candidates, too.
“Republicans like competition,” he noted. “If somebody wants to do that, that’s not the worst thing for the voters, and it’s not always a bad thing for the candidates, either.” A primary contest can compel an endorsed candidate to sharpen his or her message and test-drive a get-out-the-vote operation. If the endorsee fails — well, maybe the better candidate wins.
If that thinking catches on — as it already has to a considerable extent in the DFL — it’s bad news for us Minnesota political pundits. We’ve gotten a lot of mileage over the years with stories about the warring ways of selecting candidates for elective office. Endorsement or primary? Which is more democratic? Which is more easily co-opted by evil fat cats and/or narrow-minded interests? Which yields general-election winners?
It’s a long-running quarrel. University of Minnesota emeritus historian Hy Berman says that for most if not all of the 20th century, Minnesota’s political parties have chosen candidates via convention endorsement contests, then subjected the winners to the test of primaries in which any voter can cast a ballot. (Minnesota has no party registration and has long rejected the “closed primary” notion of allowing only certified party members to vote.)
For much of that time, party insiders have scorned — or worse — candidates who refuse to swear allegiance to the endorsement process. For much of that time, state party leaders have tried to beef up the endorsement’s value to candidates, offering money, lists, get-out-the-vote operations and assurances of legitimacy in opinion leaders’ eyes.
But “either/or” thinking about endorsements and primaries has given way to “both/and” and sometimes “just the primary, thanks” in DFL circles. That party saw in 1982, 1990, 2000 and 2010 that primaries can be interest-builders in races for governor or U.S. senator, with positive results. They’ve learned to live with and even love the primary winners who bump off their endorsees. (They’ve had considerable practice.)
Downey is touting the same change of mind in the GOP, which has not seen a vigorous primary contest for a top state office in 20 years. That year, the party denied endorsement to sitting Gov. Arne Carlson in favor of social conservative Allen Quist. Carlson trounced Quist in the primary and went on to win a second term — but the Quistians stayed in force in party ranks. That institutional memory likely isn’t helping Downey sell the notion that primaries can be the party’s friend.
When the tussle has been “endorsement or primary,” I’ve tended to tug on the primary side. Caucuses tend to become insiders’ preserves, where zealotry is rewarded. Requiring attendance at caucuses, then conventions, in order to have a say excludes too many people.
But “endorsement and primary,” with primary contests that offer voters real choices? That’s the hybrid that was recommended in 1995 by the still-relevant Growe Commission on Electoral Reform. It takes Downey’s “strong endorsement/strong primary” model one step further, by recommending that parties have the option of endorsing more than one candidate when strong primary contests are in progress.
That hybrid would be true to both the New England town-meeting and the populist/Progressive Movement traditions from which this state’s political culture springs. It would allow extra influence for ordinary folks willing to put in extra effort without allowing them full rein. It would give Minnesotans options to meaningfully participate in party candidate selection in multiple ways, times and places.
It would call a lasting truce in the endorsement-vs.-primary quarrel. And chances are good that it would give Minnesota the advantages of both — which one party seems to be enjoying already.
Lori Sturdevant is an editorial writer and columnist. She is at email@example.com.