Primary elections can be messy affairs, leading to all manner of hurt feelings, strange bedfellows, depleted campaign coffers, and crushed, broken dreams. Party officials tend to hate them, preferring to follow Ronald Reagan’s eleventh commandment.
For them, it’s not just a matter of money being spent on internecine warfare, but fears of skeletons popping out of closets which inevitably haunt the eventual winner in the general election. But for all the complaints, this is one area where what’s bad for the party is good for the voters. In the end, it is the individual members of the party around the state or district who should choose the nominee, not the entrenched leadership.
The Republicans have a couple of these family affairs in full swing right now, complete with all of the angst and confusion you might expect. Perhaps the most high profile race is playing out in Florida between Marco Rubio and Charlie Crist. Rubio’s campaign looked to be a rather quixotic one in the beginning. He started out with zero name recognition and a financial profile better suited to setting up a lemonade stand than launching a statewide Senate race. By contrast, regardless of some national conservative opposition, Crist was widely regarded as a popular figure around the state with impressive resources and the rapid, if ill considered backing of the national party.
The primary process led to that situation changing drastically over the winter, though. Rubio attracted millions of dollars from online activists who found his conservative bona fides to be far more solid than the Obama-hugging, stimulus-supporting Crist, and Florida voters seem to be listening to that message. A recent poll found Marco leaping out to an 18-point lead, forcing the formerly presumed nominee into some desperate measures. Someone inside the party began telling tales out of school and the local papers jumped on a story which involved Rubio making personal purchases on his GOP credit card. The story doesn’t look like it will gain a lot of traction, but it’s still a painful reminder that politicians today have to exercise extreme caution in every facet of their lives. If you find yourself at the local wine shop with a party credit card in your hand, it may be time to ask one of your staffers for a few bucks.
Thus far, John McCain’s race is shaping up somewhat differently. He’s being challenged by talk radio host J.D. Hayworth, who features similar conservative credentials to Rubio and has a fair-sized platform from which to shout. But the 2008 Republican presidential candidate still seems to hold significant appeal for voters in his home state, and his campaign has been quick to dog the challenger about various things he’s said on the radio. Most prominent among these are what Ed Morrissey recently referred to as his “birther flirtations.”
The contrast between these two races may provide us with a valuable lesson in the primary process. Everyone in the country can weigh in with their opinion on any race, and they may have some effect. But in the end, it’s the local voters who will make the call and everyone should respect that. In the case of Rubio, the outside money may have simply given him a large enough megaphone to convince Sunshine State voters that he’s the right man for the job. Had the pitch carried no appeal for the locals, Rubio would still be toiling away in polling obscurity no matter how much money conservative bloggers channeled in his direction.
McCain, on the other hand, may still sail through his primary relatively unscathed. (After all, do you really think we’re going to turn up anything new on the guy now after all he’s been through?) If that happens, the Arizona primary voters will have spoken and everyone — including J.D. Hayworth — should respect their decision and get behind the candidate in the general election.
And what of the scandal in innuendo angle? Is there some real harm done to the party when internal opposition research digs up some bit of dirt over the course of Republican on Republican cage match action? To me, at least, the answer is clearly no. The voters deserve to know everything about their potential candidates, including all the bumps and warts which most people have lurking in their pasts.
Plus, when something like Rubio’s credit card problem surfaces this early, the campaign has a sufficient period to mount a defense, answer the charges, and let the story fade away in the ever-shifting news cycle. By the time November rolls around it will be found collecting dust in the “Oh … that again?” file. There is also the consideration that anything your primary opponent finds would likely have been turned up by the Democrats. Again, best to get it out into the sunlight sooner rather than later.
But the only way the primary process is a clear win-win for either party is when the participants honor the results. Joe Lieberman notwithstanding, one of the most disastrous outcomes of any primary battle is when the loser decides to take his ball and run a third-party spoiler campaign. This rarely results in anything but a gift to the opposition. Rubio stated early on that he would support the eventual nominee, whether he was it or not. Not only have we heard no such promise from Crist as yet, but reports are already swirling that he may bolt the party and go for an independent run given his poor poll numbers. No word from the Hayworth campaign on that front has crossed my radar yet, but I hope he will show the same restraint as Marco Rubio.
In the end, we have primary fights for a very good reason. The voters get to give all interested parties a trial run and see how they fit their collective needs. Political activists across the nation should rejoice in, rather than reject the process. But they should also remember that only those registered to vote in these races are entitled to the final say.