Closed Primaries, or the Republican Bachelor

[Originally published June 14, 2019]

Grocho Marx is credited with telling the Friar’s Club of Beverly Hills, “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.”

Virginia Republicans are probably feeling the same way after another year of convoluted, exclusionary nominating contests.  The Republican Party claims that it wants to grow its numbers and encourage participation, but it has created nominating contests that are more like an episode of “The Bachelor” with only so many roses to go around.

Like a harem of women vying for one man’s attention, the Republican Bachelor likes to test the devotion of its voters.  He will force those interested in participating to sit through conventions lasting so long that participants begin to suffer from rickets due to the lack of exposure to sunlight.  Of course, that’s only if those voters can get to the convention location in the first place. Have to work? Can’t afford to travel? Have a family member that needs attention? The Republican Bachelor has no rose for you.  

If a big group date isn’t your thing, the Republican Bachelor could arrange for the more intimate Firehouse Primary.  It’s supposed to be more like a quickie than a long drawn-out date, and it has that cutesie name. However, if you have to work on a Saturday, have athletic children who have a weekend game, or would rather not stand in line for an hour and a half in the sun (if you’re lucky), then you are not rose material.

The Republican Bachelor has only so many roses, and the voters willing to do that special thing that the other voters aren’t willing to do will be the only ones to gain favor.

Now, if you are able to make it to the convention or find your off-the-wall voting location for the Firehouse Primary, the Republican Bachelor has one more devotional trial before you make it to the final rose ceremony: the loyalty pledge.  You must pledge that once you make it off Villa de La Nomination, you will love no other candidate other than the Bachelor, er, the Republican nominee, no matter who he is, what he believes, or how he treats you. This is no time to expect your vote to be earned; remember, there is a rose at risk here.  If you aren’t willing to vow that you will give it up for the Republican nominee, then you might be told that it’s time to pack your things and return to the real world without a rose.

It’s hard to get on The Bachelor — thousands of people apply for only 25 to 30 spots.  Republican nominating contests are starting to feel like they are following the same model.  In Prince William County, roughly 5,500 people participated in the Republican Firehouse Primary, which looks like a lot, until it’s compared to the over 13,000 voters who participated in the Democrat Primary a month later.  Granted they were different districts, but the Blue Ridge District Republican Convention in Loudoun County had 269 delegates while the Democrat Primary in Loudoun’s Sterling District had 2,246 participants.

Closed nominating contests depress not only general participation, but also Republican participation.  Compare the numbers of the closed nominations to the open primary nominating contests in the 7th Senate District in which over 7,800 Republicans voted versus roughly 5,500 Democrat voters, or the 17th Senate District in which almost 7,700 Republican voters participated versus just over 6,100 Democrat voters.  

In Prince William, the ratio of Democrat to Republican voters was 2.3:1, in Loudoun that ratio was nearly 10:1.  Meanwhile in the open process, the Republican to Democrat participation was much closer. The 7th District saw a 1.5:1 spread while the 17th was even closer with a 1.3:1 ratio.  There were certainly many factors that went into these numbers, but making voting more difficult has the universal end result of curbing participation.

There is a fear that by having state run primaries, ne’er-do-well Democrats will cross party lines and defile our chaste process (a dubious description considering the dumpster fire that was the 97th District).  The much more legitimate fear should be that these closed processes are driving away Republican voters and depressing enthusiasm for our candidates.

In the 2018 Republican Primary, 16,647 votes were cast in Prince William County, which means that in one election cycle Republican participation in the nominating contest dropped off by 11,000 people in just one county.  It is doubtful that 11,000 people switched parties or moved, and much more likely that the closed party run nomination process made it too difficult or too confusing to engage these voters. Disengaged voters in the spring are much more difficult to turn into motivated voters in November.

The Bachelor has been on for 23 seasons, but, of all those couples who made it to the final rose ceremony, only two went the distance and got married.  If Republicans continue to treat our nominating contests like a reality show, we should not be surprised if voters aren’t interested in making a long term commitment to us.

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