Reform Week: Open Primaries

Member Group : Phil English

This spring I was back on the ballot, and won. Understandably, it was largely unnoticed.

I reclaimed my old seat on Republican State Committee, where I served for 12 years prior to entering Congress. State Committee meets periodically to elect officers and oversee party operations, and is responsible for party rules. The most important and public task is to participate in the selection of statewide candidates, making primary endorsements and filling post primary vacancies. Republican State Committee has always taken seriously its responsibility to promote a competitive statewide GOP ticket, and carefully screens candidates from the top of the ticket down to the appelate courts. I know and respect the people who assemble from all over the state to meet the candidates and participate in the endorsement process.

I think that this process is important; however, as the GOP reaches out to independent voters, Republican State Committee needs to refine its policy on endorsements, and consider how and when they best serve the party interest- and the Republican voters’ interest. One option: open primaries.

Not every office or contest requires State Committee to make a choice between qualified Republicans. Contested primaries can attract interest and fertilize the party’s leadership pool- although they can also be divisive and expensive.

One of the greatest Republican State Committee meetings I ever attended was in 1976. The party was gathered to hear from candidates seeking the right to succeed Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott. After a competitive three way race, RSC moved a resolution supported by a strong majority to back Congressman John Heinz of Pittsburgh. Then- it happened. John Heinz arose, and called for an open primary.

It was a brilliant move, and gave him the high ground in the tough subsequent primary and general election. The John Heinz precedent is one that party statesmen should keep in mind in the future.

Open primaries produced Dick Thornburgh, Arlen Specter, and local congressional nominees: you can draw your own conclusion about their success in those cases. But also note: an endorsement led to Tom Ridge’s nomination, as arguably the only Republican positioned to win the Governorship that year. Ed Rendell’s decisive victory over Bob Casey for Governor in 2002 highlights the limits of state party endorsements.

On the other hand, some low visibility contests- where the candidates lack resources and the party needs to play an active role in recruitment- demand State Committee leadership and engagement. This includes state judgeships and constitutional offices. If the state party ignores these, nominees will be dictated by familiar names, geography, or personal financing of campaigns.

My point: open primaries are no panacea, but should be an active option in high profile, non incumbent races.

Perhaps the other aspect of opening primaries has to do with who is permitted to vote in them. In Pennsylvania, only registered party members are permitted to vote in party primaries. Registered Independents are given no option of voting in primary contests. Voters registered in one party are mere bystanders in the strategic choices being made in the other party’s primary. Some argue that competition and party building would be enhanced by opening primaries to a broader universe of voters, with better election choices and outcomes. That is a debate worth having, although I confess I would expect the results to be mixed.

What do you think?