FactPower: Facts, figures, and talking points for Resistance activists.
Getting the Lunatics out of Politics: Why Democrats Should Vote in Republican Primaries
IN A GLANCE:
This article lays out a coordinated strategy for progressives (Democrats), possibly in collaboration with moderate Republicans, to:
vote extremist Republicans off of the ballot.
eliminate extremist Republican incumbents.
give moderate Republican politicians political cover, so that they can break with party lines on harmful bills without getting primaried from the right.
create a political atmosphere in which Republican lawmakers actually pay attention to what progressive activists want.
drag the political ideology of the Republican Party from the far right towards the center (which would bring them more in line with the values of their constituency).
Note: Although this strategy is pitched for use by progressive Democrats to modify the ideology of the Republican Party, it could be used the other way around. At its core, it is a method for ridding our government of politicians whose extremist platforms are out of alignment with the values of the constituency they represent. At the present, the only party that has diverged into extremist territory is the GOP, which is why the article is pitched as it is.
By most accounts, our government is spinning out of control. We all know it. Rather than coming together to discuss and resolve issues, we move to opposite sides of the room and scream at each other. There are very few moderates left in government; we are left mostly with liberals vs. radical neoconservatives.
This problem didn’t happen overnight. It is the result of voter apathy on multiple levels. On the most obvious level, many people don’t vote. They wouldn’t even know how to vote, because they don’t pay attention to the news. Even those who vote typically don’t vote in every election. Turnout is greatest in the presidential elections, which are ever-present on people’s minds. Midterm and local elections have much lower turnout, perhaps half or more. And almost nobody turns out to the primaries. Primary voters are usually the more hard-core political types who often have the most extreme ideologies. On the conservative side, they are disproportionately from the Religious Right, the Tea Party, and even the “alt-right.”
It is in the primary process that extreme right-wing activists get to shape the Republican Party, because they can easily overwhelm the more moderate elements by their sheer numbers – just by showing up. It is through this process that sane, mainstream politicians like Alabama’s Senator Luther Strange are replaced with radical right-wing candidates like Judge Roy Moore (a process called “being primaried from the right”). Fortunately Moore lost to Democratic candidate Doug Jones, mostly because he was a bigot, homophobe, religious zealot, and pedophile. However, he came closer to winning than we’d like to admit.
On one hand, having a deplorable Republican candidate helps Democrats to win seats. On the other hand, we run the real risk that the deplorable candidate actually wins the election. Although that didn’t happen with Moore, it did happen with Trump, and we are paying dearly for it. Wouldn’t we all love a President Kasich right now? While he might not be a Democrat, at least he wouldn’t be crazy and dangerous. He wouldn’t have nominated radical, incompetent, and inappropriate people to lifetime positions. He wouldn’t have taken a wrecking ball to every government agency or destroyed innumerable lives by executive order. Defeating the unthinkable candidate, Trump, in the primaries would have been worth a small cost to Clinton’s chances in the general election. If we could go back in time and change history, I think we would.
Of course we can’t change history, but we can change our future by being a bit smarter today. We need to learn or recognize a few things:
Centrist Republicans are potential allies and collaborators, because they are almost as alarmed about the far-right wing of their party as we are.
Primary elections are the arena where activists can exert their biggest influence, because so few people participate. We have to take our fight to the enemy’s primary.
Sometimes the best path forward is counterintuitive, involving a few steps backwards or to the side.
How progressives can re-shape the GOP into a more moderate party by participating in their primaries:
Ages ago, in the final days of the 2016 primary season, we had Clinton and Sanders on the Democratic side, vs. Trump, Cruz, Kasich, and Rubio on the Republican side. Most Democrats would have been pleased with either Clinton or Sanders for president. However, on the Republican side, there was a clear outlier who would be unfit and dangerous as president – Donald Trump. Mainstream Republicans wanted him defeated almost as much as Democrats did. Late in the primaries, Trump’s opponents were considering pooling their electoral votes to defeat Trump. The most moderate of these candidates (and a likely participant in this plan) was John Kasich. Therefore, many Democrats believed there was more to be gained by voting in the Republican primary for someone like Kasich than by voting in the Democratic primary for one of two already-good candidates. This did not mean they were trying to put a Republican in the White House. Rather, they were trying to vote a bad person “off the island,” so that someone else would win the Republican nomination. Then they would vote in the general election for the Democratic nominee, be it Sanders or Clinton. But if Sanders or Clinton didn’t win, hopefully there would be someone besides Trump who would become president. Of course we know how the 2016 train wreck turned out.
A similar situation arose in the 2017 Virginia gubernatorial primaries. On the Democratic side was Tom Perriello, who felt similar to Sanders, vs. Ralph Northam, who was more of an old-guard Democrat like Clinton. But on the Republican side, we had another dangerous right-wing white supremacist named Corey Stewart – facing off against a more mainstream candidate, Ed Gillespie. Either Democratic candidate would have been acceptable, but Stewart was not an option. Many Democrats chose to vote in the Republican primary against Stewart (for Gillespie) and then to vote in the general election for the winner of the Democratic primary, who was Northam. Corey Stewart lost by the narrowest of margins (1.25%, or 4500 votes), leaving Ed Gillespie to face off against Ralph Northam. Stewart’s loss probably wouldn’t have been possible, were it not for the actions of those Democrats who crossed party lines to vote in the Republican primary. And thankfully, Northam won by a 9% margin in the general election. Some feel that if Stewart had won the Republican nomination, he could have beaten Northam. Hatred is contagious, and Stewart would have had the bully pulpit throughout the election season. However, we took his microphone away in the primary, denying him the opportunity.
THIS is what we must start doing, and we must organize to do it in greater numbers. This is how progressive activists can prevent a radical right-wing movement such as the Tea Party from re-making the Republican Party in its own extremist image.
Furthermore, this is how we can remove right-wing extremist Republican incumbents from office. Most Republican voters do not identify with the extremist ideology of the radical right, especially with regard to social policy (hatred of immigrants and LGBT people, abortion rights, etc.). They are typically “pocketbook” voters who have bought into the message that Republican fiscal policies will help them more than Democratic policies. However, they also have concerns about extremist fiscal policies that would broadly dismantle important government programs like Social Security and Medicare. There is a lot of room for the party to move to the middle.
This is where progressive Democratic activists can collaborate with centrist Republican activists. Whenever centrist Republicans put forward their own candidate to challenge an extremist incumbent Republican in the primary process, progressives can cross party lines to join forces with them, ganging up on activists from the radical right (e.g. Tea Party). If we are successful in this primary challenge, then the radical right incumbent will be gone, and the two remaining candidates will be a moderate Republican, vs. a Democrat. The political center of gravity will necessarily shift to the left. After the primary, Republicans and Democrats would part company and vote for their respective candidates in the general election. (May the better candidate win.)
Crossing party lines to vote in the Republican primaries could also be an extremely effective strategy in districts or states that are so deep-red a Democrat has no reasonable chance of being elected. It is a way to impact the temperament of politics and drag it a bit towards the left, without actually having to win an election.
If we earn street credit, we can impact legislation.
Until now, whenever the Tea Party has told a Republican lawmaker to jump, the lawmaker would ask, “How high?” Failing to acquiesce to the demands of the Tea Party would mean a primary challenge and failure to be re-elected. Lawmakers know this, because the Tea Party has earned street credit. This has resulted in the GOP drifting farther and farther rightward in policy, as the most moderate Republicans fall victim to political Darwinism. But we can reverse that.
As progressive activists start scoring victories in the Republican primaries, we will eventually be recognized as a more formidable force than the Tea Party and other radical right-wing interests. Republican politicians will respect us for our ability to cover their backs if they take moderate positions (even working across the aisles with Democrats). Or they will fear us for our ability to eject them from office if they pursue a more extremist agenda. If we want lawmakers to break from a party-line position, we will have the means to assure them their dissenting vote will not be a fatal one.
To wield this sort of influence, we must be visible about what we are doing. We must tell extremist Republican lawmakers we intend to collaborate with moderate Republican activists to primary them from the middle, and then we must be successful doing so. After removing a few lawmakers from office this way, we will have earned our street credit. Moreover, the Tea Party and other extreme right-wing groups will have lost theirs, being powerless to stop us.
But how do we vote across party lines?
The how-to’s are pretty simple. Here are some FAQs:
Is it being done already? Yes. Both sides have been doing it for decades, although it’s not a common practice. Various approaches have been taken. This article discusses crossing party lines to vote for the least awful of the opponent’s candidates, as discussed above. However, Rush Limbaugh’s “Operation Chaos” in 2008 (also see here) was intended to prolong the Democratic primary process and divide the Democratic party, by having Republicans vote for Clinton over Obama. Still a different approach is to vote across party lines for the weakest candidate. Sadly, some Democrats took this approach in 2016, crossing over to support Trump in the primaries, thinking him too deplorable to win. Which has gotten us to where we are now. The stakes are very high when voting for the opposite party’s presumed buffoon. Voting for the other party’s best candidate is a much safer approach that pays more consistent dividends. We must never risk electing another Trump.
Is it legal? Yes. In 2008, many people questioned whether Rush Limbaugh’s “Operation Chaos” was legal in Ohio, for instance, where voters had to sign a loyalty pledge that they would vote for the winner of the primary in the general election. Some claimed participants were committing “election falsification” (a felony) by signing and then breaking the pledge. However, even attorneys for the Democratic party and the Democratic Secretary of State didn’t feel charges were justified against any of the participants – or against Limbaugh. Voting one’s conscience is Constitutionally protected by the First Amendment, and it would be extremely difficult to prove intent anyway. (Still, if you must sign a loyalty pledge, then it’s probably best not to talk too freely about your intent.)
Of course if there is no loyalty pledge, then “election falsification” is not an issue. And if you are voting for whomever you believe is the best candidate on the Republican ticket, then there is no foul intent anyway.
It bears repeating: Our Constitutionally protected Freedom of Speech allows us to vote however we wish. Period.
Do I have to be registered as a Republican? It depends on the state’s primary system. Some states require a voter to register in advance with the party in whose primary they wish to participate. One can switch one’s party of affiliation in advance of the election by re-registering or updating one’s registration. Other states allow voters to choose the primary in which they wish to participate on the day of the primary. Most states do not allow voters to participate in the primaries of more than one party per election, but a few have ballots that simultaneously include candidates from both parties. (For the most accurate information about your state’s primary system, please Google your state’s board of elections, e.g. “Ohio board of elections.” Look for hits that have “.gov” or “.state.__.us” in the address. See here for more general information that might not be accurate about your specific state. )
Under no circumstances will anyone know how you vote in the general election or require your primary and general votes to align. So someone registered as a Republican can vote for a Democrat in the general election. Again, this is a First Amendment right.
[Note: There is really nothing wrong with a Democrat being permanently registered as a Republican. If anything, it helps to screw up gerrymandering attempts, and it mucks up projections of voter turnout. It keeps the election crooks guessing!]
How is it possible to vote in a Republican primary without messing up the Democratic primary results? Not all Democratic primary voters need to vote in the Republican primary. We have enough people that some can fight the Tea Partiers in the Republican primary, while others focus on selecting good candidates in the Democratic primary. Voters participating in the Republican primary can employ a “paired voting” strategy, which is easiest to use in open-primary states (that do not require prior party registration). Let’s assume there are two front-runner Democratic candidates, A and B. One voter who supports candidate A can pair up with another voter who supports candidate B. Both agree to vote in the Republican primary against that party’s extremist candidate. By subtracting equally from the votes for candidates A and B, the integrity of the Democratic primary is preserved and helpful action is taken simultaneously in the Republican primary.
A closely related strategy of “pre-primary polling” can be carried out by a political organization. The members can conduct their own poll to determine which candidate to support. Assume there are 100 votes for candidate A and 250 for candidate B. Then 150 members agree to vote in the Democratic primary for candidate B, and the remaining 200 agree to vote in the Republican primary. More complex vote parsing can be done if there are multiple races of concern.
How can a small political organization sway a primary election? They get help. Very few voters want extremists in office, and if given a way they could prevent that, they might participate. For instance, imagine the response of an African American church when faced with a white supremacist candidate in the Republican primary process. Progressives can reach out to such a church and organize an effort to turn out in the Republican primary to vote against the supremacist candidate. Similarly, imagine the responses of university student groups to any candidate with deplorable social policies. Imagine responses of the poor to candidates who would rob from them to give to the rich. Imagine responses of the elderly to candidates who would take away their Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. It is possible to reach out to organizations representing these groups to take coordinated action against an extremist candidate.
It is also possible to discuss these tactics with individual voters when doing door-to-door canvassing and voter registration in target neighborhoods. As an added incentive to participate in the primary process, voters should be reminded of (typically) Republican efforts to purge voters from the rolls, misallocate them to the wrong districts or precincts, or create other obstacles to voting. Participating in a primary is a good trial run opportunity, to ensure that one is properly registered and can successfully vote. Any difficulties can be resolved with the state’s board of elections prior to the general election. Factpower has prepared a 1-page PDF flyer to hand out during canvassing. You may modify it if necessary to suit your needs, and you may print and redistribute it freely.
What could go wrong? If this strategy threatens to interfere too much with the mainstream Republican agenda, (e.g. threatens an important statewide race), then there’s a small possibility the state’s Republican Party will opt to hold a convention, rather than a primary, to select candidates. On one hand, that might give extremists a further edge, if they are more likely to participate in a convention than moderate Republicans. (Note: They are already more likely to participate in the primaries, so this might not really make much difference.) On the other hand, a convention is high-handed and would mean a political and economic cost to the party.
This is far less likely to happen if the cross-party voting strategy is only employed in a few local races (e.g. for US representatives), because the Republican Party would have to decide its candidates for the entire state via convention, just to prevent progressive meddling in a few races.
Can it work? Yes, but it depends on our ability to organize. There are more of us than there are of the radical right. However, they are much better organized than we are, because their movements are older and more established. It will take honest hard work to organize at this level, but we can do it. It’s a matter of teaching more sophisticated voting strategies and building a culture of discipline to turn out and vote in each and every election, no matter what. We will initially see our greatest successes in the smallest races – the most local offices and the lowest participation elections (local, special, and midterm). A plan such as this cannot become national movement overnight. However, each success will be a building block for further actions on larger scales. And yes, it could eventually be a national movement like the Tea Party’s, only much more powerful.
This article describes a number of approaches for moderating the Republican party, while not negatively impacting the outcome of elections for Democrats. These methods are recursive: Successful intervention by progressives in Republican primaries will earn them “street credit,” and that will give them the power they need to influence the positions Republican lawmakers take on specific bills. Currently, most Republican lawmakers ignore anything progressive activists or Democratic constituents ask or say, because those voters are not their “base.” Their influence is not believed adequate to swing the next election. However, voting across party lines to swing primaries will change that equation. It will get lawmakers’ attention and land progressive activists a respected seat at the table either as powerful allies or dreaded foes. Then assuming these lawmakers do as we ask, we have the power to protect them against extremist challenges. Our successfully doing so will earn us more street credit, and so forth.
The author is grateful to politicians and activists from both sides of the aisle who offered commentary on this article, including an attorney.