The Wisdom of Primary Challenges

by Paul Hogarth on May 20, 2008

Although Barack Obama will officially clinch the nomination tonight, Democrats worry that the long battle against Hillary Clinton will hurt him in November. Californians certainly remember the “murder-suicide” pact in 2006 between Phil Angelides and Steve Westly that re-elected Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger – in a race that Democrats had no business losing. But in races for the U.S. Senate this year, every indication shows that competitive primaries have been good for Democrats – where choosing between two candidates has energized the grassroots. Whichever Senate candidates win in Oregon and Kentucky tonight will be in much better shape challenging their Republican incumbent than if they had a free ride, and in some cases primaries have put “hopeless” seats into play for November. It’s only when the losing candidate insisted on a “slash-and-burn” campaign to the bitter end that things went sour.

As Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos has said, “if you listen to the Beltway conventional wisdom, contested primaries are terrible, terrible things. The parties work feverishly to ‘clear the field’ for favored candidates, forcing out less-attractive primary opponents regardless of how many feathers are ruffled at the grassroots level. Yet a bitterly contested primary wasn’t a terrible thing for over half of the Senate’s newest members – all of whom triumphed in contested primaries.”

The problem I’ve always had with “saving up our resources” for November is that, by default Democrats let the establishment win – without giving grassroots activists a chance to determine the party’s future. Could the Democratic Party have been “smart” this time around and rallied behind Clinton to avoid a nasty primary and keep Democrats unified? Sure, but the price would have been a weaker nominee who does not stand up for progressive change when the public desperately wants to end the status quo.

But California Democrats sabotaged themselves in 2006 with a competitive primary and lost the Governor’s Mansion because the two candidates spent the whole season slinging mud at each other. In retrospect, the ultimate goal (defeating Schwarzenegger) would have been better served if the party had just “cleared the field” for one candidate.

However, one reason why that race caused so much damage is that Angelides and Westly lacked a core base of grassroots supporters like Obama or Clinton. Without a coherent message to run on, the two millionaire candidates simply duked out the final days of that race with attack ads on television – so that voters were sick of the acrimony and didn’t really care who won. Angelides was broke by the end, and never recovered.

As much as I have complained about Hillary Clinton’s conduct in this race, I will give her credit on one point. In the final stretch of this race, she has toned down on the negativity. This gives me hope that the party will survive to defeat John McCain in November.

Not settling for one candidate has allowed for primary fights in Senate races across the country – helping Democrats attain a Lieberman-Proof majority. Tomorrow, Oregon Democrats will choose which candidate will face Senator Gordon Smith. State House Speaker Jeff Merkley is the party elite’s choice, but lawyer Steve Novick has run a quirky, Wellstone-like campaign that has energized the grassroots. Whoever wins (and it’s a toss-up) will benefit from what has mostly been a positive race.

In some cases, a competitive primary has pushed Democrats to zero in on Senate races that were thought to be unwinnable. Few people expect Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to lose re-election in Kentucky, but a contest between Democrats Bruce Lunsford and Greg Fischer has renewed interest among the party’s grassroots. The same has happened in North Carolina – where State Senator Kay Hagan won a closely fought primary last week. Now she’s in striking distance of beating Senator Elizabeth Dole.

In Nebraska, Scott Kleeb will have a tough time beating Republican Mike Johanns in the fall – but a spirited primary improved his standing. While a new poll has him down 55-40, it’s better than where the race was before (59-28) – and with the media framing the race as change vs. experience, this year’s dynamic will help him. If Kleeb wins, we’ll be grateful that he told Nebraska Democrats not to settle on an ex-Republican millionaire.

Without competitive primaries, Democrats can get stuck with candidates who could have used a good fight. In Minnesota, Al Franken has cleared the field in the most important Senate race of the year – the effort to defeat Norm Coleman and avenge the death of Paul Wellstone. Now Franken is seven points behind Coleman, in part because he got busted for owing back taxes. Franken can still win, but it’s frustrating we didn’t know about this sooner.

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