There’s been a lot of head-scratching and soul-searching after hard-right Trump clone Leora Levy defeated moderate Republican and former House minority leader Themis Klarides for the GOP U.S. Senate nomination. Well, not everyone is worried; those jeers and howls of laughter you hear are coming from Democrats all over the state.
Still, one of our two major parties nominating a clearly unqualified fringe candidate who was endorsed by current and future defendant Donald Trump is a seismic event. We can take two big things away from it.
First, it’s getting harder and harder for moderate Republicans in Connecticut; they’re being squeezed by Democrats on one side who demand they denounce Trump’s MAGA movement, and the GOP base who want them to go all in on it. The strategy of ignoring Trump and hoping he just goes away is getting less tenable. At some point they may have to make a godawful choice: embrace Trump and the extremists on the right and lose their souls, or oppose him and get booted out of office by the tiny fraction of voters who show up to GOP primaries.
I mean, one of these is obviously right and one is horribly wrong. It’s the duty of everyone who loves democracy to oppose demagogues and would-be authoritarians; in other words, in a world of Lindsey Grahams, be a Liz Cheney.
Themis Klarides chose the right path, but it cost her dearly. It’s hard to see how her political career recovers at this point, as she and her party are going in diametrically opposite directions. This is a loss for the GOP, and for Connecticut. One-party Democratic rule seems like the only way forward right now, especially because the Republicans are working overtime to make themselves as reprehensible as possible to socially liberal and fiscally moderate independent Connecticut voters, but it’s not healthy.
The other big takeaway here is that closed primaries are also not the healthiest thing for our democracy.
What were those turnout numbers, again? About 90,000 voters turned out to select the Republican nominee, or 20% of the 497,981 registered GOP voters. Registered Republicans themselves are a distinct minority in the state, making up only a fifth of Connecticut’s registered voters. Democrats make up about 37% with 905,268 registered voters, while unaffiliated voters, the largest voting bloc in the state, are at 42% with 1,028,066 voters.
This means that the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate, the person chosen to face off against Sen. Richard Blumenthal, was decided by 3.7% of registered Connecticut voters.
That’s abysmal. Unfortunately, it’s not that uncommon for our primaries. Only 112,000 voters turned out for the Democratic primary this year, which isn’t much better. Even when there are well-covered, compelling races, turnout struggles to break 40% of the respective party’s voters.
Part of this is that we decided to plunk our primaries down right in the middle of the sleepiest political month on the calendar: August. But part of this is the nature of the primaries themselves. To participate, you have to register with a party. That automatically disqualifies nearly half of voters in Connecticut!
Closed primaries get criticized for enabling extremism, a criticism that seems absolutely valid in the aftermath of Levy’s win. Who reliably turns out for primaries in the dead of August? The most activist, the most partisan, and often the most extremist voters, that’s who. And if turnout is low enough, this small minority of voters can swing an election.
The parties need to open up their primaries to everyone, though that alone won’t really fix the situation. There may be some moderating influence from unaffiliated voters, but the problem of primaries being inherently partisan remains. It’s also notoriously difficult to get on the primary ballot at all for anyone who doesn’t have enough support at a party convention.
What I’d like to see is a system employed in other states and countries: a two-round election. The first round is open to all candidates, with the top two vote-getters moving on to the final round. This takes the party out of the primary process altogether, which is healthier for democracy. It also guarantees that the eventual winner is elected by an actual majority of voters.
If we take away nothing else from Leora Levy’s primary win, it should be that our primaries are too closed. They should be opened up as soon as possible.