Va. Loyalty Oath: GOP In A Sad Corner
There are plenty of states (20 and the District, to be precise) where you must register as a member of a political party to vote in its primary elections.
But Virginia, like 19 other states, has no such requirement: Anyone may vote in any primary, but only in one party's primary. (The remaining nine states generally make you declare yourself a member of a party to vote in its primary, but let you change your enrollment at the polls, effectively allowing anyone to vote in any primary in any given year.) The Virginia system eases the way for independents to take part in selecting nominees for president, governor, Senator and other positions.
But it also--at least in the minds of party officials searching for reasons why they might be losing elections--creates opportunities for mischief. The theory is that some voters deviously cross party lines and cast their ballot in the other guy's primary, either to support a lousy candidate and undermine that party's general election chances, or to push that party away from the ideological bent that its hard-core supporters would otherwise choose.
It's a theory without much hard evidence to support it, and it's a slap in the face of the one-third or so of the electorate that declines to identify with either the Democrats or the Republicans.
In Virginia, where the Republicans are in a bit of a panic about their declining fortunes at the polls, party chieftains proposed this fall to require voters to sign a loyalty oath when they arrive at February 12's presidential primary. But a firestorm of protest--mainly, to their credit, from party insiders appalled at the idea of presenting the GOP to the public as a closed society--forced the Republican leadership to back down, which they did this weekend.
Virginia Republicans have been eager to get rid of open primaries for more than a decade, fighting in the Legislature and in the courts to close the process. Much of the energy in this effort stems from sour memories of 1996, when Sen. John Warner used an open primary to foil his conservative opponents. Two years earlier, Warner, a moderate, had enraged his party's conservatives by supporting independent Marshall Coleman against conservative Republican Oliver North in the U.S. Senate race won by incumbent Chuck Robb. In retaliation for that bit of perceived disloyalty to his party, Warner's conservative opponents lined up behind a "Dump Warner" campaign in '96 and recruited James Miller to challenge Warner for the GOP nomination.
But Virginia law allows incumbents to choose whether to face intra-party opposition in a closed convention, where only party members participate, or in an open primary election. Warner, naturally, chose the primary, and many conservative Republicans believe to this day that it was only the votes of Democrats who crossed over to save Warner's job that delivered him the nomination and sent him on to victory that fall.
Studies of voting behavior, however, show that only a maximum of about 2 percent of voters cross party lines to vote in the other guy's primary. Voters just aren't nearly as devious or as calculating as political insiders make them out to be.
This fall, a federal appeals court ruled that Virginia's policy of allowing incumbents to choose between a nominating convention and a primary is unconstitutional. That makes Virginia's Republican party even more eager to get rid of open primaries. But it's highly unlikely that a Democratic Senate and Democratic governor would go along with such a change.
So the party is in a bit of a pickle. It wants to present itself as open and welcoming, yet continues to delude itself into thinking that it is dastardly Democrats, rather than genuinely torn independents, who are sneaking into the Republicans' private gathering and breaking with the party line. Luckily, lots of principled conservatives saw the loyalty oath idea as an unfair and un-American attempt at "politically correct thought control," as Tracy Mehan III put it in The American Spectator.
If Republicans were serious about reaching out to become a big tent party, they would not have chosen to pick their U.S. Senate candidate for next year's election via convention, but rather would have required former Gov. Jim Gilmore to face moderate Rep. Tom Davis in an open primary. Our polarized and increasingly unrepresentative politics needs every possible device to push candidates and parties back toward where most Americans live, in the center.
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