It is one thing to cross party lines to promote someone you regard as a “less evil” candidate. It is quite another to actively aid the other party’s weaker candidate during the primaries to try to beat that party in the general.
Why is the group Democratic Colorado (not to be confused with the official party) spending money to “attack” Ron Hanks as “too conservative for Colorado?” The ad emphasizes that Hanks is rated a conservative legislator; “he says Joe Biden’s election is a fraud”; and he “wants to ban all abortions,” “build Trump’s border wall,” and allow concealed carry of a handgun without a permit.
The clear intent of the ad to is help build Hanks’s name recognition and popularity among conservative primary voters. Why? This Democratic group thinks (and I agree) that Hanks’s primary opponent, Joe O’Dea, would mount a more formidable challenge to incumbent Democratic Senator Michael Bennet.
Unless Democrats condemn this dirty-pool politics, I never want to hear them complain in the future about comparable Republican dirty tricks.
Another group is “attacking” Greg Lopez, who is running against Heidi Ganahl in the primaries. Sandra Fish reports that an ad from “a Democratic-leaning independent spending committee notes Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Lopez’s support of former President Donald Trump as well as other conservative positions, though it notes that he’s too extreme for Colorado.” I don’t think either Lopez or Ganahl has a chance to beat Jared Polis, but Ganahl obviously is the stronger candidate for the general.
Another example: As Fish and Jesse Paul report, mailers linked to a Democratic-leaning group “appear to support” 8th Congressional candidate Lori Saine over her Republican primary opponents. Democrats hope a weak Republican will lose to Yadira Caraveo in the general.
Nothing new here
These tactics are nothing new. As Fish and Paul note, in 2010 “the Democratic Governors Association and unions” ran ads attacking Scott McInnis in the governor’s race. Partly as a result, Dan Maes won the Republican primary and got roundly spanked in the general election. Sensing Maes’s weakness, Tom Tancredo entered the race with the Constitution Party. John Hickenlooper won with 51% to Tancredo’s 36% and Maes’s pathetic 11%.
The dynamics were different in that race. Unlike Hanks and Lopez, McInnis already had wide name recognition, having served in the U.S. Congress in Western Colorado. So the aim of the attack ad was to tar McInnis as a plagiarist and so to discourage people from voting for him. Earlier in the race he was the clear frontrunner.
The irony of these ads, which clearly aim to benefit the Democratic Party by interfering in Republican primaries, is that they reveal a profound cynicism about the democratic process. Basically, these ads hope to trick some primary voters into voting against their stated preferences and interests. I’m assuming here that most people who vote for Hanks and Lopez in the primary would prefer O’Dea and Ganahl to their Democratic opponents. No doubt some primary voters are instead political nihilists, but I think that’s the exception.
Yet the critics of these ads (including me) worry about them only because they reasonably think that many people are easily tricked. Both sides, then, agree that the democratic process can be derailed by dirty politics. I see this as a “data point” supporting some worry about mob rule. The Founders were wise to create barriers to unrestricted majority rule, as through constitutional protections of individual rights, a bicameral legislature, and judicial review.
Compare the dirty-pool ads to other cross-party efforts to influence primaries. Andrew Kenney reports, “Thousands of voters have recently left the Democratic Party in Western Colorado—some as part of a grassroots effort to defeat Republican Congresswoman Lauren Boebert in her upcoming primary election.”
These voters seem sincerely motivated to help the candidate they see as less-bad, in this case Boebert’s Republican challenger Don Coram. But no one thinks the Democrat is likely to win this race in the general, so people reasonably see the key contest as between Boebert and Coram.
Blame open primaries
I will point out here that cross-party primary participation, whether to support a less-bad candidate or to “torpedo” a party’s stronger candidate, is an inevitable result of Colorado’s open-primary laws. The rules strongly incentivize strategic voting over party loyalty. I can’t really fault people for playing by the rules presented to them.
To reiterate my position: I think government should not be involved in party primaries at all. Instead, parties should be purely private organizations, free to choose how they endorse candidates. Government should set equal ballot-access rules for all comers, regardless of party, and not even list party affiliation on ballots. And, to eliminate the “stolen vote” problem, government should institute “approval voting,” whereby people can vote for as many candidates as they want. (Alternately, government could set up run-offs or ranked-choice voting, but I prefer approval voting.)
Let us look at one last example of cross-party activism. Elisabeth Epps is the hard-Progressive candidate for state house District 6, running against the relative moderate Katie March. Undoubtedly the Democrat who wins the primary also will win the general. (I sort of like the idea of a hell-raiser like Epps in the legislature, just to shake things up and offer a fresh perspective.)
In a recently fundraiser, Epps asked her supporters to help “stop Republicans and their corporate donors from buying the HD6 Democratic Primary.” She claims, “The Colorado Chamber of Commerce, Colorado Apartment Association, Apartment Association of Metro Denver, and other conservative groups have all endorsed and donated tens of thousands of corporate money to my opponent.”
I don’t have any problem with this brand of politicking, as the Republican-leaning actors clearly prefer March to Epps. As we can surmise from Epps’s fundraiser, such actions sometimes can backfire, as the targeted candidate can claim to bear the standard of purity and principles.
Back to the original topic: One problem with playing dirty pool in the primaries is that it encourages your opponents to do likewise. And you can never predict when lightning may strike and you help to elect the candidate you most hate.
Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.
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