Why Primaries Aren’t All Bad

by Nathan L. Gonzales March 23, 2015 · 10:04 AM EDT

Primaries can be expensive and divisive, but treating them like the plague — as party spokesmen are prone to do early every cycle — distorts electoral reality.

GOP strategists looking to hold the party’s newly attained majority are reveling in the potentially crowded field of Democrats for the open seat in Maryland. Setting aside the state’s strong Democratic lean, Republicans need not look back far to know that a crowded and competitive open-seat race is a poor predictor of future failure.

The recent list of failed Senate nominees who blundered away the party’s top pickup opportunities after winning a competitive primary is familiar: Todd Akin, Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell, Ken Buck, Richard Mourdock. But a handful of new GOP senators proves primaries don’t prohibit general election victory.

Last cycle in Georgia, businessman David Perdue received just 31 percent in the May Republican Senate primary against six candidates, including three members of Congress and a former statewide elected official. Perdue emerged from the July runoff with 51 percent of the vote and a whittled war chest, but he went on to defeat Michelle Nunn, one of the top Democratic Senate candidates, by 8 points in the general. Nunn had dominated her primary with 75 percent against nominal opposition.

In Iowa, state Sen. Joni Ernst won the Republican primary with 56 percent against four opponents and under pressure to avoid a convention, where the most conservative delegates would likely choose the nominee. She went on to win the open seat by 8 points against Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley, who had no primary opposition. Ernst was the first Republican not named Charles E. Grassley to win a Senate race in Iowa since 1978.

And in Nebraska, university president and former Health and Human Services aide Ben Sasse won a five-candidate GOP primary with 49 percent and cruised to victory in the general in that open-seat race. Republicans probably start with a similar chance of winning Maryland in 2016 as Democrats had of winning Nebraska in 2014.

Crowded primaries don’t even preclude knocking off an incumbent in the general.

A primary could be shaping up in the Democrats’ top pickup opportunity in Illinois, and the party appears frightened of one in Ohio, where it hopes to unseat GOP Sen. Rob Portman. Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee already endorsed former Gov. Ted Strickland over young Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld. But is such public primary intervention necessary?

In North Carolina last cycle, state Speaker Thom Tillis won an eight-candidate GOP primary with 46 percent. He defeated Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan by 2 points in the general.

In Alaska, former commissioner of natural resources Dan Sullivan won a mid-August, four-way primary with 40 percent and defeated Democratic Sen. Mark Begich less than three months later.

GOP Rep. Bill Cassidy faced Republican opposition in Louisiana’s all-party primary and still nearly topped Democratic Sen. Mary L. Landrieu in the initial race. Landrieu finished ahead of Cassidy, 42 percent to 41 percent, in November, while tea party-backed Republican Rob Maness received 14 percent. Cassidy won the December runoff by a dozen points.

The cases of Akin, Angle, O’Donnell, Buck and Mourdock, combined with those of Perdue, Ernst, Sasse, Tillis, Sullivan and Cassidy demonstrate that the outcome of the primary — getting the right candidate — matters more than the existence of a primary at all.

The natural argument against primaries is that clearing a field is a way to guarantee a primary outcome (and thus a certain nominee). But what ultimately matters is who wins that primary and how unified the party is after the internal fight. In some instances, a competitive primary can sharpen a candidate for the general, including on the country’s biggest stage.

The 2008 Democratic presidential primary arguably helped then-Sen. Barack Obama win the general. His competitive and expensive fight with then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton forced both campaigns to organize in states such as North Carolina and Indiana, which didn’t host primaries until early May, and weren’t regarded as battleground states. But the extended primary laid the foundation for Obama to win both states in the general.

Looking back, is there a Democrat outside of the Clinton family who thinks a relatively new senator from Illinois should have stepped aside for the former first lady in the name of avoiding a competitive and expensive primary?

Last cycle in South Dakota, former Gov. Mike Rounds possibly could have benefited from a more competitive GOP primary. Rounds hadn’t experienced a serious campaign in more than a decade, and there were a few weeks late in the general-election race when his grip on the seat appeared in jeopardy against lower-tier opposition. A spirited primary would have forced Rounds to ramp up his campaign earlier.

Primaries can of course be a detriment to a party’s general election chances. But it’s important to remember that competitive, divisive and expensive primaries can also ultimately lead to victory.