Going to extremes

How wacky grandstanders hijack Western politics ... and what some reformers plan to do about it.


Updated June 4, 2010

On May 8, about 3,500 activists selected in Utah neighborhood Republican meetings gathered in Salt Lake City. They were, on average, "more male, more Mormon" and had "different concerns ... than the typical Republican or Utah voter," according to a Salt Lake Tribune poll, with two-thirds supporting the rebellious Tea Party. Yet they were in charge of evaluating Republican Party nominees fighting for a chance at a U.S. Senate seat.

The delegation demonstrated a major problem in Western politics: The staunchest activists tend to dominate political party conventions and primaries, particularly on the right.

Utah's Republican incumbent, three-term Sen. Bob Bennett, has been popular. He helped bring light rail to Utah, got funding for universities and Utah's 2002 Olympics, and oversaw "the first major compromise between rural Utah leaders and environmentalists in a generation," the Tribune reported. That 2009 deal -- designating 256,000 wilderness acres while selling off several thousand acres of federal land -- was praised by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. Bennett, whose father served four Senate terms, is "a good conservative," says Utah's other Republican senator, Orrin Hatch.

But Bennett has also cut a few bipartisan deals on health-care reform, bank bailouts and other issues. He faced seven Republican challengers, all running to his right. Ultimately, delegates selected Tim Bridgewater and Mike Lee to advance to the June 22 Republican primary election. Bridgewater and Lee, political novices, vowed to battle more fiercely against enemies such as the federal government and the United Nations. "When it was announced that Bennett had been eliminated ... a huge ovation swept through the (crowd) and there were hoots and shouts of ‘He's gone! He's gone!'," the Tribune reported. A shaken Bennett said, "The political atmosphere obviously has been toxic."

The system that generates such toxicity in each party — the various traditional primary elections, caucuses and conventions that are increasingly run by wacky grandstanders — is ubiquitous. It was evident in Arizona in April, when that Republican Legislature and Gov. Jan Brewer passed a super-tough immigration law that many people believe essentially authorizes racial profiling, calling for police to confront anyone they suspect to be illegal, based on appearance alone. Critics on both right and left say that the law violates civil rights and federal authority over immigration; a few groups immediately challenged it with lawsuits.

Arizona has a "semi-closed" system, in which only a political party's members (and independents) can vote in primaries. That submits candidates to typical ideological screening and removes obstacles to Arizona's libertarian impulses. Thus candidates elected to the Legislature have created many unreasonable laws, including denials of climate change and a short-lived resistance to the worldwide ban on the air-conditioning chemical Freon, which destroys the atmosphere's ozone layer.

But Washington state has attempted something different. In 2004, its voters passed a ballot measure that blew primaries wide open: All candidates for an office compete, all voters can participate, and the top two advance to the general election. The "Top Two" reform came into effect in the 2008 elections, and many say it's an improvement. "Top two primaries reduce partisan extremism by forcing candidates to appeal to all voters, especially independents, instead of courting the fringe wing-nuts, as we see in party primaries," says John Laird, editorial writer for The Columbian in Vancouver, Wash.

Reformers have put a similar Top Two measure -- Proposition 14 -- on the ballot in California's June 8 primary. Polls show most voters favor it as a follow-up to a successful 2008 measure that reduces political-party bias in drawing up legislative districts. Proposition 14 "would be a "win for democracy," says the Sacramento Bee. "This is a state with a growing swath of moderates. The problem is they lack representation."

Political parties, aware that Top Two weakens their grip, have challenged Washington's system with a lawsuit and defeated similar previous measures in California and Oregon. Some reformers also oppose it, saying it reduces minor-party candidates' already-small chances to zero. They prefer a "Ranked Choice-Instant Run-off" primary, in which voters rank all candidates in order of preference. That system, used in local races in San Francisco, Aspen and a few other communities, helps minor-party candidates, whose supporters no longer have to worry about wasting votes.

Top Two has broad support in California, including from the AARP and the state's Chamber of Commerce. It might be defeated again, once the parties' TV ads kick in, but many people seem ready for such change.

Update: California voters OK'd Top Two -- but lawsuits will likely stall its implementation.


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