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November 07, 2013 10:54 AM Blaming Conventions

By Ed Kilgore

Of all the questionable post-election interpretations coming out of the Virginia gubernatorial race, one that needs to be questioned a bit more is this one, made as part of a thinly sourced Jeremy Peters/Jonathan Martin piece in the New York Times about “the Republican Establishment” moving to get rid of nominating conventions:

The debate intensified on Wednesday after Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, the deeply conservative Republican candidate for governor of Virginia, lost a close race in which Democrats highlighted his opposition to abortion in almost all circumstances, his views on contraception and comments in which he seemed to liken immigration policy to pest control.
The party leaders pushing for changes want to replace state caucuses and conventions, like the one that nominated Mr. Cuccinelli, with a more open primary system that they believe will draw a broader cross-section of Republicans and produce more moderate candidates.

This reflects the idea that had Virginia Republicans not scrapped a primary for a state nominating convention in 2013, the more electable Bill Bolling would have rolled to victory in November.

The main problem with this hypothesis is that every public poll of a GOP primary taken before the decision to go with a convention showed Cooch trouncing Bolling. A Quinnipiac survey in June of 2012, for example, gave Cuccinelli a 51/15 lead over the Lite Governor.

Yes, a convention made Cooch the certain rather than the prohibitive nominee, and did produce the unfortunate elevation of E.W. Jackson to the nomination for Bolling’s job. But it also saved Cooch a gazillion dollars, and avoided making the bitter personal enmity between Cuccinelli and Bolling the centerpiece of Virginia politics for months.

The “Tea Party Coup” theory of what happened to Virginia Republicans also ignores the history of Virginia nominating systems, which have in recent years switched back and forth between conventions and primaries, particularly on the Republican side.

Aside from accepting the “Establishment” take on Virginia, the Peters/Martin article makes a curious argument about the system used in Iowa for non-presidential nominations:

With control of the Senate expected to turn on a handful of races around the country next year, Republican leaders are worried about the outcome in Iowa, where a crowded field of G.O.P. candidates has taken shape, including several untested ones. If no one receives 35 percent of the primary vote, the nominee will be selected by a convention.
“Conventions have a flimsy track record of selecting the most electable candidates,” David Kochel, an Iowa-based Republican strategist, said in an interview on Wednesday. “There’s just no good substitute for a full-scale vetting by a large universe of primary voters.”

To be clear, Iowa does have primaries, and uses a convention only as the functional equivalent of a runoff. It’s not entirely obvious why this system is less likely to produce an “electable” nominee than one in which someone winning 28% in a crowded field wins outright, which is the case in most states outside the South.

Sure, there are systems that seem designed to insulate the nominating process from non-activist public opinion in general, like Utah’s. But before we make that the devil-figure in the rise of the Tea Party, let’s not forget its most notable triumphs over the hated RINOs have been via primaries (Rubio, Angle, O’Donnell, Mourdock, Akin, and Cruz, just to mention Senate races). And BTW, because it’s often argued that closed as opposed to open primaries are part of the reason ideologues have an advantage, Mourdock, Akin and Cruz all won in open primary states where indies and Democrats are free to participate in GOP primaries.

Sure, political parties should be perpetually aware of the general election opportunities lost when its pols get too obsessed with pandering to the party base (a problem at the moment confined mainly to Republicans). But easy process fixes are rarely the easy answers they purport to be.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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