States Push Primary Reform to Reduce Hyper-Partisanship
After the October government shutdown, one thing became clear: hyper-partisanship had slowed governance down to a halt. Now, some states are changing primary rules to force candidates to pay more attention to the general election than their base.
The stark differences between progressives and conservatives are now secondary to the differences between conservative Republicans and moderate Republicans. With the threat of a well-funded Tea Party primary challenger to any moderate Republican that votes against the party, conservatives have hijacked congress away from anyone that doesn’t fall in line. Since most congressional districts lean heavily Republican or Democratic, the majority party’s primary winner is almost guaranteed a seat. That means a candidate only has to appeal to their base to win the entire election.
To make general elections more important, states have introduced legislation to change primary rules. In North Carolina, the legislature is currently mulling taking the redistricting that happens every ten years out of politicians’ hands and creating an independent task force. In California, voters passed a referendum to create a top-two primary. Unlike a regular primary where the Republicans vote for their candidates and the Democrats for theirs, all candidates are on the ballot in a top-two primary and the top two vote-getters advance to the general election. In Republican districts, this will likely be two Republicans and vice versa for Democratic ones but the election would be held for all parties’ voters.
“What that’s done is created a much more responsive group of legislators and congressional members because they know that their re-election is not solely dependent on the ideological base of their own party,” says Dan Schnur, the head of the Institute of Politics at USC. “They can actually work across party lines without having to worry about the Tea Party or Move On running a primary challenge against them.”
The primary threat is no longer something confined to Republican strategist backrooms. Even John McCain recently admitted that any immigration reform push would have to wait until after next year’s primaries so that Republicans in conservative districts don’t have to defend their vote on immigration reform to the party base. Primary changes like these could allow representatives far more ability to govern across party lines.