Senate Primaries: Lets Get Ready to Rumble!

Recently important figures in both parties have spoken up about the advantages of vigorous primary contests. Democratic Party chairman John Walsh wrote an opinion piece for the Boston Globe entitled Contested Primary Good for Democrats. poster Matt Elder, a Marlborough city councilor, even called for a “bloody primary” on the Republican side.

Political commentators often argue about what puts a party in a better position: a contested primary or a walk-over with the candidate’s energy, reputation, and money intact for the general election.  Walsh and Elder see the benefits of a primary fight.

Chairman Walsh believes his party prospers when Democratic candidates have the chance to highlight their positions because so many Massachusetts citizens share their views. He says the party’s greatest strength is not its now legendary organization but its deep pool of candidates. Competition among them assures that the best candidate to win a general election will emerge from a tough primary. (See, Democrats do believe in markets).

This is admirable on Chairman Walsh’s part and he really should try to convince the establishment elements that tried to shut off any competition for Ed Markey. Take the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee for instance, a group I would not equate with the people of Massachusetts but which has access to the money spigot. So who are the DSCC’s “constituents? The Center for Responsive Politics can help; they track contributions by industry and sector. In 2012 DSCC raised almost $146,000,000 and the most generous Sector was Lawyers/Lobbyists with $9.6 million, then Ideology/Single Issue $9 million, then Finance/Insurance/Real Estate with $7.6 million. In 2010 Finance/Insurance/Real Estate led the way with $12.8 million, then Ideology/Single Issue with $11.2M, and Lawyers/Lobbyists with $11.1M. So DSCC has a lot of influence in the important money primary.

On the Republican side it wasn’t the money primary that scared off so many prominent politicians but the sense that victory is unlikely. Councilor Elder hopes that three or four candidates will face off on a wide range of issues; guns, abortion, you name it. Debating ideas will strengthen the party.

Elder is on to something. You wouldn’t think the Mass GOP is big enough to have factions but they do. The party needs to figure out what it is. One hint is that when they’ve won in this state the GOP has done so with moderates like Bill Weld, Paul Cellucci, Mitt Romney (version 2002) and Scott Brown. But let the Tea Partiers have their moment too. If they prevail the party sure will stand for something recognizable.

I’ve been reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder.  A major theme is that people and institutions do better when faced with some levels of uncertainty and randomness; they grow and evolve and become stronger. So rather than the Soviet Central Committee, excuse me, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee dictating the nominee, a primary will be good for the Democrats. For the Republicans several candidates talking about ideas can help the GOP get past the stale arguments that have enduringly preoccupied some party activists and help the Mass GOP figure out what it really wants to be.

As legendary boxing referee Mills Lane would say, “Let’s get it on!”

About Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He teaches courses in American government including Massachusetts Politics, The American Presidency, Catholics in Political Life, The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, American Political Thought, and Public Policy. His book Maximization, Whatever the Cost: Race, Redistricting and the Department of Justice examines the role of the DOJ in requiring states to maximize minority voting districts in the Nineties. He has published articles dealing with the role of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts politics and on party politics in the state. His research interests focus upon the changing political culture of Massachusetts.
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