How Minority Parties (Might) Compete in One-Party States
A Commentary By Louis Jacobson
Playing in other party’s primary or backing an independent candidate are two possible options.
KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— In an increasingly polarized nation, one party often dominates in a state while the other is seemingly consigned to permanent irrelevance. In such states, primary voters for the dominant party are able to flex their muscles to nominate a comparatively extreme candidate, who is all but assured a victory in the general election.
— One creative way that minority parties in at least some of these states could fight back is to stop running candidates for major offices like senator and governor, and instead encourage their voters to vote for the more moderate candidate in the dominant party’s primary. This is at least theoretically possible in states where primaries are “open” to all voters, rather than just those registered to the party in question.
— Another is to back an independent candidate instead of nominating their own candidate, as Democrats recently chose to do in Utah.
Minority parties seek creative solutions in one-party states
The United States is a nation increasingly polarized by party and by state. In many states, one party dominates while the other flails in seemingly permanent irrelevance. In such states, primary voters for the dominant party are often able to flex their muscles to nominate a comparatively extreme candidate, who is all but assured a victory in the general election.
Is there another way for minority parties in lopsided states to compete? There does seem to be an appetite for alternatives this year. Consider:
— In Utah, Republican Sen. Mike Lee is running for reelection. In recent years, Utah Democrats running statewide have been unable to break 40% of the vote. This year, Evan McMullin, a former third-party presidential candidate from the state, decided to run as an independent, touting himself as a centrist alternative to Lee. While McMullin has an uphill climb seeking to oust a Republican incumbent in Utah, he got a break last weekend when Utah Democrats pledged not to nominate a candidate in the race. This gives McMullin a somewhat better shot at stitching together enough Democrats and moderate Republicans to make the race competitive.
— In Alaska, Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski is facing another Republican, Kelly Tshibaka, who has the backing of former President Donald Trump and the state Republican Party. Her candidacy could imperil Murkowski’s hopes of winning another term, but Murkowski is banking on a voting system approved by voters that will be used for the first time in 2022. On Aug. 16, the state will hold an all-party Senate primary; the top 4 finishers, regardless of party, will then face off in the general election, which will use a ranked-choice voting system. This could boost Murkowski, who is considered one of the Senate GOP’s few moderates and who has historically gained support from otherwise Democratic-leaning labor unions and Alaska Natives. In a ranked-choice system, Democratic voters would be able to rank Murkowski as their second choice and help her win in a second round against the more conservative Tshibaka. Further aiding Murkowski is that the Democrats have no candidates in the race at this point. (The filing deadline is June 1.)
— In Missouri, the open-seat race to succeed GOP Sen. Roy Blunt has produced a Republican primary in which the candidates have rushed to align themselves with Trump. This state of affairs so worried former Republican Sen. John Danforth that he issued a public call for an independent centrist candidate. Initially it seemed like he found one — Thomas P. Schneider, the former mayor of Florissant. But Schneider eventually decided not to run, instead endorsing one Republican (state Senate President Pro-Tem Dave Schatz) and one Democrat (beer heiress Trudy Busch Valentine), declaring them both to be “pragmatic” candidates.
Beyond these unusual matchups, there’s a slightly different idea, so far untried, that might be worth a closer look: Having minority parties in states that are dominated by the other party decline to run their own candidate for certain statewide offices, instead urging their voters to cast ballots in the dominant party’s primary in order to produce a more moderate nominee. Voters in the minority party may not love casting a ballot for a member of the other party, but given their own party’s difficulty winning in these states, having a moderate win the general election rather than an extremist would benefit the minority party on the policy front.
The calculation, put simply, is this: What does the minority party gain by consistently failing to crack 40% of the vote and yet, by continuing to run candidates, effectively empowering the dominant party’s ideological fringe to choose their state’s next governor or senator?
In theory, following this approach could work for either party — Democrats in deep red states, and Republicans in strongly blue states. It would not be advisable in states that are more evenly divided, because the minority party in these states is not consigned to electoral hopelessness.
As a practical matter, however, it might only show promise in a subset of these strongly Republican or strongly Democratic states — namely, those that have open primaries or a multiparty primary with a runoff general election.
In an open primary, voters may choose in private which primary to vote in, without having to register with that party. Meanwhile, other states have an all-party primary as the first round, with some differences in design.
Collectively, this adds up to a non-trivial number of states, according to how the National Conference of State Legislatures categorizes the primary process in each state. Of the states where Republicans are dominant, 7 hold open primaries (Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, and South Carolina). In addition, Alaska has the aforementioned top-4 primary with a ranked-choice general election, and Louisiana has an all-party general election with a runoff if no candidate gets 50% in its jungle primary format, where the first round of voting is held in the fall.
As for the states in which Democrats are dominant, 2 have open primaries (Hawaii and Vermont) and an additional pair have a top-2 all-party primary (California and Washington state).
Collectively, that’s 13 states where, logistically, this sort of strategy might show the most promise. Tables 1 and 2 spell out these states.
Table 1: Solidly red states where Democrats could more easily participate in Republican candidate selection
Table 2: Solidly blue states where Republicans could more easily participate in Democratic candidate selection
Notes: *Top two Democratic candidates combined; ** 2018 election, not 2021 recall; ^ Minority party won seat; ^^ No Republican made the general election
As the tables show, it’s rare in these states for the minority party to exceed the low 40s in a presidential, Senate, or gubernatorial race. The few exceptions include the election of Democrat John Bel Edwards in Louisiana and Republican Phil Scott in Vermont. Both Edwards and Scott had moderate positions that enabled them to attract dominant-party voters; both were elected to replace unpopular dominant-party governors; and Edwards’s initial victory was aided by the personal baggage of his Republican opponent, David Vitter.
At least one state, Hawaii, has tacitly moved in this direction. There, the Democratic Party is so dominant that numerous Republican officeholders have switched their party affiliation to Democratic. These party switchers have typically been accepted warmly by Democrats, making the party unusually diverse ideologically. For instance, Mike Gabbard, a same-sex marriage critic (and the father of former Democratic presidential candidate and former Rep. Tulsi Gabbard), was named chair of the state Senate Agriculture and Environment Committee after switching from Republican to Democratic. Aaron Johanson, a former House Republican leader, now chairs the House Consumer Protection and Commerce Committee. Whether the impetus was their ability to win office in the first place or their ability to make a mark on policy, both of these party-switchers — and others — realized that having a Republican affiliation was no longer in their political interest.
In Vermont, polling has shown that while a core of party members do stay within their own primary, others will go where the action is, said Chris Graff, a longtime observer of Vermont politics. Graff said he expects to see a number of Republicans voting in this year’s Democratic primary for the state’s open U.S. House seat, because they know the winner of that primary will win the seat in November.
Alaska is another state with somewhat malleable political affiliations. In 2014, a fusion ticket consisting of Independent Bill Walker and Democrat Byron Mallott won the gubernatorial race, and the state House has been controlled for several years running by a coalition of Democrats, independents and breakaway Republicans. While the GOP generally wins statewide elections in Alaska, “Democrats have been able to significantly assist moderate Republicans in winning legislative races and the governorship,” said Jerry McBeath, a University of Alaska Fairbanks political scientist. “This happens in the competition for endorsements of influencers, and the reluctance of Democratic Party leaders to put money in races of Democratic candidates without broad enough appeal.”
In 2014 in Kansas, the Democratic Senate candidate went so far as to withdraw, allowing Independent Greg Orman to compete head-to-head against Republican incumbent Pat Roberts. Orman ended up losing by about 10 points in a strongly Republican election cycle, but his 43% of the vote might have been better than a Democrat could have gotten against such a longtime figure in Kansas politics.
In states that have all-party primaries followed by a top-2 general election, such as Washington state and California, creative matchups are happening, even without active efforts to change voter behavior. In the 2018 California Senate race, for instance, incumbent Democrat Dianne Feinstein faced fellow Democrat Kevin de León in the top-2 general election. Feinstein was considered more moderate than de León, and it’s likely that Feinstein was able to hold off her challenger at least in part because of the votes of Republicans who found her the more acceptable Democrat.
And this year, it’s plausible that in the California attorney general’s race, a former Republican running as an independent — Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert — could make the final round of voting instead of a Republican candidate. Schubert would be following in the footsteps of Steve Poizner, another former Republican who made the final-2 round in the race for California insurance commissioner in 2018, losing by only about 6 percentage points (Republicans running in other statewide offices that year lost by significantly more).
Of course, there are lots of reasons to be skeptical of creative ballot approaches working. For starters, it’s a heavy ask for state party officials to acknowledge their own impotence and decline to run a candidate for a top office in their state.
“If the minority party doesn’t field a candidate or candidates for statewide office, the other party will use that to beat the minority party over the head that it lacks relevance,” said Andy Brack, publisher of Statehouse Report, a South Carolina political newsletter. “It will hurt the party and be ‘proof’ that it is weak. That’s not smart if you want to lead.”
For many leaders of minority parties, even the slim possibility of backing a winner from their own party may be too appealing to resist (even though most such winners in recent years have depended on running against a significantly wounded candidate from the dominant party, including Roy Moore in Alabama, Matt Bevin in Kentucky, Kris Kobach in Kansas, and Vitter in Louisiana).
A good example of the tradeoffs is the Mississippi gubernatorial race of 2019. Democrats could have made a difference that year in the Republican gubernatorial primary, which included both staunch conservatives and a relative pragmatist. Instead, “the Democrats thought that their candidate — the popular, long-time Attorney General Jim Hood — had a fighting chance” in November, said Steve Rozman, a Tougaloo College political scientist. In the end, Tate Reeves, the more conservative of the final 2 Republican candidates, defeated Hood by 5 percentage points.
In California, Republicans have watched their party shrink in size and influence. But even there, a rump Republican Party has more voters on its rolls than many states have population, and the GOP retains a large donor pool, said Marcia Godwin, a professor of public administration at the University of La Verne. In addition, the California GOP sometimes benefits from the state’s initiative and referendum system, which sometimes provides “cross-cutting political issues that can spike more conservative voting,” Godwin said.
Meanwhile, it’s clear that convincing members of the minority party to vote in the opposite party’s primary is a challenging logistical and rhetorical lift. “Given that primary turnout is generally pretty low and dominated by strong partisans, I think that the present polarization would make a commitment to strategic voting a pretty high hurdle,” said Hal Bass, an Ouachita Baptist University political scientist.
But perhaps the biggest drawback to this approach would be that asking one party’s voters to cast ballots in the opposition’s primary election means that those voters wouldn’t be able to cast ballots in their own party’s primary for offices in which the primary could be important, notably in determining the nominee for legislative seats.
Ultimately, the minority party leadership in these states will have to weigh the costs and benefits of changing their approach, and different state parties will consider this calculation in different ways. For instance, Missouri Democrats would be offended to be classified as a state party with no chance of winning in the near future, said Kenneth Warren, a Saint Louis University political scientist.
“Missourians are in love with Trump, but are they in love with the Republican Party?” Warren said. “This will take time to figure out. Missouri Democrats are more dedicated to rebuilding the party, not throwing in the towel.”
Louis Jacobson is a Senior Columnist for Sabato’s Crystal Ball. He is also the senior correspondent at the fact-checking website PolitiFact and is senior author of the Almanac of American Politics 2022. He was senior author of the Almanac’s 2016, 2018, and 2020 editions and a contributing writer for the 2000 and 2004 editions.
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