Jonathan L. Wharton

My CTNewsJunkie colleague Terry Cowgill wrote recently that Connecticut Republicans need to do some soul searching following the Republican Party primary for US Senate – former state House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, a moderate, lost to Leora Levy, who was endorsed by former President Donald Trump a few days before the vote. Or more specifically as Cowgill framed it, “What happens when a political party gets wiped out in elections?” The premise appears to be that Republicans keep nominating candidates who are too far to the right to be able to compete in the general election.

But the bigger concern is that only 20% of Connecticut’s registered Republicans showed up for an August primary and there were just two statewide offices to vote for this year. Democratic Party turnout was also low at 15%.

As I wrote after the primary, at least in 2018 there were so many gubernatorial candidates on both sides of the political party aisle that turnout was higher – about a third of registered party voters participated. Voter and media interest were also apparent in statewide primary election races four years ago.

Unless there’s a top-of-the-ticket race generating lots of interest, such as a presidential election, few of us turn out for state and local races. And when we do, it’s not even close to 40% because the majority of us in Connecticut are not affiliated with a party to vote in our closed primary election because registered party affiliation is required.

Still, Levy was successful in getting enough of Connecticut’s registered Republicans to show up in this month’s primary. And Peter Lumaj’s candidacy split the low turnout since he received 10%.

While Cowgill and my political science colleague Prof. Gary Rose at Sacred Heart University called this primary election an “upset,” it was based on a small turnout among Republicans that make up only 20% of Connecticut’s electorate.

Ultimately, Cowgill and fellow CTNewsJunkie contributor Susan Bigelow called for “change” in our primary election process. Allowing for open primaries is a difficult feat, but they argued that open primaries could get unaffiliated voters more energized on their way into November’s general elections.

But this would require both major parties to agree to open primaries since Connecticut’s political bosses and lawmakers agreed in the middle of the 20th century that a single political party may not institute reforms unilaterally. Connecticut Judge Robert Satter reminds readers in Under the Gold Dome that both major parties need to be on the same page about instituting changes. You may remember a recent reform to the party convention process: candidates earn primary ballot access by receiving the support of 15% of the convention delegates, and candidates win the party’s endorsement with the support of 50% or more of the delegates. But these changes required both major parties’ backing.

Even doing away with party conventions would require both major parties to agree before discontinuing conventions. The state GOP endorsed Klarides at its convention in May, three months before the primary election. Connecticut remains among only a handful of states in which parties still hold conventions and endorse candidates months before the primary election.

While Bigelow and Cowgill remain grim and appear to blame Connecticut’s Republican Party for the malaise in state politics, the fact remains that reforming these political institutions and their processes requires engagement from political leaders on both sides, and voters.

I cannot be as pessimistic as Cowgill, who suggested that the state Republican Party could have “its lights out for the foreseeable future.” Or that, “closed primaries are also not the healthiest thing for democracy,” as Bigelow offers.

Instead, we need to recognize that party reforms are in order and it will require both major parties to be on the same page to find pathways to growing their party registration numbers.

Opening the primaries, discontinuing party conventions, and moving the primary out of August could be the first steps toward reform. But any changes should be up for discussion by party leaders and voters. It’s far better to debate and offer reforms than to blame one political party for overdue change.

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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