Jonathan L. Wharton

Our state political parties are pretty stodgy when it comes to candidate recruitment, convention rules, and party procedures. This process includes candidates being endorsed by chosen convention delegates (through their respective local party committees) for registered party voters in primary elections. Connecticut saw the results of low turnout this week and voters supported state-party endorsed candidates with one exception: Connecticut’s Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate.

Admittedly, I was unaware that party endorsements meant so much to so many political party insiders and candidates. I thought that little star on the ballot was like a footnote – great to have but not a necessity. Yet when I joined a Naugatuck Valley mayor’s campaign for state comptroller four years ago, getting the endorsement from state Republican Party delegates was critical. Name recognition mattered for candidates, so voters ideally knew to support an endorsed candidate in primary elections. Being a party-backed candidate indicates credibility and allows campaigns to advertise the title.

Party endorsement also helps with ballot name placement since endorsed candidates get that coveted party line right up front for primary voters to choose immediately. So, common wisdom indicates that party-endorsed candidates win primary elections because they have the backing of “insider” party leaders and convention delegates.

This year’s party endorsement proved to be helpful for state Democratic Party candidates Erick Russell for state treasurer and Stephanie Thomas for secretary of the state. But only 14.68% of registered Democrats and 20.69% of registered Republicans showed up on Tuesday, so it was a lackluster turnout. It’s usually around 25% to 30% with the rare exception of 43% in the 2006 U.S. Senate race between Ned Lamont and Sen. Joe Lieberman. 

It was likely a low turnout because who thinks about elections in August on one of the hottest days this summer? Party loyalists. And with no gubernatorial candidates at the top of the ticket this year (compared to a half-dozen candidates in 2018), who would come out? Party loyalists. They are also the ones that volunteer and donate to campaigns. And Republicans came out in higher percentages than Democrats on Tuesday. That fact should indicate not just loyalty, but also motivation to support a candidate – a party endorsed candidate and a non-endorsed candidate.  

Dominic Rapini won the state Republican Party’s endorsement and the primary election for secretary of the state. Former state representative and state House Minority Leader Themis Klarides won the state Republican Party’s endorsement at the party’s convention, but she faced a three-way race in Tuesday’s primary for the U.S. Senate. Both Leora Levy and Peter Lumaj qualified with enough delegate support to make it onto the primary ballot. But with the party splintered and former President Donald Trump’s endorsement late last week for Levy, Klarides lost despite having won party’s endorsement at the convention.

But our state’s party endorsement and convention processes are archaic and our primaries are hardly getting the attention that they should. Few Nutmeggers understand endorsements and primaries because the majority of us are not affiliated with a political party and Connecticut is a closed primary election state. A voter must register with a party prior to the primary election. No surprise then that much of the primary election, party convention, and candidate endorsement procedures are electoral logistics and partisan minutiae.

What matters most is registering with a party and showing up. Tuesday serves as a reminder that party insiders can endorse candidates, but primary elections are critical when registered party voters participate in primaries for November’s general election ballot.

Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D., is an associate professor of political science and urban affairs at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.

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