Primary Season

Now that the two national conventions are done, the next significant political events are primary elections across the country for offices ranging from the U.S. Senate to local offices and party committee people.  As with presidential primaries, each state legislature gets to choose the date for their primary.  Twenty states conserve money by holding their federal primary (and if they have state elections in an even year, their state offices primary) on the same date as their presidential primary.  Ten states hold their non-presidential primary in May or June.  (In addition, you have two weird states.  New York holds three separate primaries — a presidential primary in April, a federal offices primary in June, and a state primary in September.  Louisiana does not hold a separate primary, allowing all candidates to run in the general and using a run-off if nobody gets a majority.)

That leaves eighteen  states that hold their non-presidential primary in August and September.  Four states (Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, and Washington) hold their primary on August 2.  Tennessee holds its primary on August 4.   Four states (Connecticut, Minnesota, Vermont, and Wisconsin) hold their primary on August 9.  Hawaii holds its primary on August 13.  Alaska and Wyoming hold their primary on August 16.  Arizona and Florida hold their primary on August 30.  Massachusetts holds its primary on September 8.  The last three states (Delaware, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island) hold their primary on September 13.

In recent years, for many districts across the country, the primary has become the general election (not that voters necessarily realize this fact).  A combination of geographic sorting along with some gerrymandering has significantly reduced the number of swing districts.  Using the Cook Partisan Vote Index (for 2014), there are 183 Republican Districts that are R +6 or higher (meaning at least six percent more Republican than the country as a whole).  Likewise, there are 149 Democratic Districts that are D +6 or higher.     Heading into the 2014 elections, none of these districts were represented by a member of the opposite party.  In simple English, it would take a very unusual year for a Republican to lose one of the Republican Districts or for a Democrat to lose one of these Democratic Districts.

Instead, if an incumbent is going to lose, it is going to be in a primary like Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor did in 2014.  If you are in a state with an upcoming primary (and there is a challenger with any money), you have probably heard an ad about how the incumbent has gone “native” in Washington, working with the other party to reach on an unacceptable compromise on some wedge issue.  So far, despite the “outsider” trend in the presidential primary, incumbents have done rather well at the congressional level in 2016 — only losing three races that I know of, both under exceptional circumstances (one facing a scandal in Pennsylvania and two forced into new districts by court-ordered redistricting).  But several key members of the House, including Speaker Paul Ryan, are apparently facing significant primary opposition.   Likewise,  there are several key Senate primaries — the Republican primary in Arizona could be closer than expected and there is a potential for a bitter Democratic primary in Florida.

(From the local perspective, here in Missouri, it does not look like any of the incumbents are facing serious primary opposition.  Over in Kansas, Kevin Yoder looks like he is facing the most serious primary competition.  The real races here in Missouri are for the state-wide offices.  The Republicans have hotly contested primaries for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, and Secretary of State.  For Democrats, the contested primaries are for Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, and Treasurer.  All of the state-wide races — including U.S. Senate — and the congressional races do have primaries in both parties, but most of the races have a clear favorite and a some other candidates with little or no funds for running a campaign.)

This system does have consequences.  Being too willing to work to reach an agreement across party lines can lead to a primary defeat.  As such, until the primary season is done, it is hard to work out deals that can get anything passed.  Right now, Congress is in a very extended recess, not returning until Labor Day, by which time the primaries will essentially be done.  That, however, leaves very little time to move on legislation — four weeks before the general election recess and four weeks in a post-election lame duck session.  There are certain bills that have to be resolved — annual appropriations — but other things like criminal justice reform are more iffy.

While the post-primary season increases the ability to compromise, the general election looms over any negotiations.  If you think that your party will be in better shape next year, perhaps you will take a harder line in negotiations on the theory that, if nothing gets done now, perhaps something can get done in January.  A significant factor is how difficult it will be for Democrats to win the House.   It would not be out of the realm of possibility for Democratic candidates for the House to get 54% of the total vote in November and still fall short of a majority in the House — the lines this cycle are simply that one-sided.  Thus, the greatest possibility for things moving this September would be polls showing Secretary Clinton leading by a significant margin.  Under that circumstance, while the general election would probably change the exact balance in the House and Senate, both parties would still be in a position to block each other.

Aside from the focus on the House and Senate, it is important to remember the significance of the down ballot races in these primaries.  For all the focus that the national media pays to federal elections, state elections are, in many ways, much more important.  It is the state legislatures that are passing the restrictive abortion laws, the voter suppression laws, the anti-union laws, and the anti-LGBT laws.  Likewise, most criminal justice prosecutions occur in state court — the laws governing crimes and the budgets for prisons and alternative to prisons are written in the state legislatures and elected county officials determine which cases will be pursued and what punishments will be sought and imposed.  State legislative districts are, if anything, even less competitive than federal elections.  In many parts of many states, it is literally impossible to draw a competitive district.  The primaries will determine if you have enough moderate Republicans in red states or purplish red states to block the most extreme proposals from groups like ALEC and Americans for Prosperity or if the extremists will control these state legislatures.

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