Jimmy’s Colorado Politics Column | Ending GOP primary would backfire

Written by on August 10, 2021

There’s a movement afoot in the Colorado Republican Party to abandon the state’s open-primary system and exclusively use the caucus-assembly process.  The main argument against open primaries seems like common sense: unaffiliated voters should not be involved in determining who either party runs as their nominee for any position.  Unfortunately, opting out will generate unintended consequences.

Think back to April 2016.  At the time, grassroots Republican activists vehemently opposed then-citizen Donald Trump.  They secured victory for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz at the State Assembly on April 9 because Cruz’s supporters knew how to work the caucus-assembly process well and scored decisively.

The effort to ensure Cruz’s win was strategic, including a full slate of candidates backed by the Cruz campaign.  Colorado’s voting delegates went to the Republican National Convention committed to his candidacy against lead rival Donald Trump.  (I was elected as an alternate delegate to the RNC for Cruz.)

Trump’s supporters were not so savvy, and it was clear they didn’t really understand how the caucus-assembly process worked.  This spurred angst and frustration — and claims of a rigged process.  We didn’t have a primary at the time.  As with past cycles, the state Republican Party didn’t hold a presidential preference poll at caucus.  This meant Colorado’s RNC delegates were only bound to the candidate they pledged to or went unpledged.

The antipathy of early Trump supporters toward this process was palpable.  They organized a protest at the Colorado State Capitol with Trump’s public support.  Early Trump advocate Erin Behrens organized the protest, admitting at the time that she “was not anticipating the results that came out” at the assembly.  “We were disenfranchised this election season,” she asserted.  That is, disenfranchised by Colorado’s confusing caucus-assembly process.

Buoyed by frustrations over the 2016 presidential selection process, Colorado voters approved Proposition 107 (establishing a presidential primary in Colorado) and Proposition 108 (setting up open primaries, wherein unaffiliated voters could participate) in November 2016.

It wasn’t a hard sell for many.  Primaries are easy for everyday people to understand because they operate like general elections and don’t require people to take off a Tuesday or Saturday evening to go to caucus and attend higher-level assemblies.  “Open primaries” sound even nicer to political novices.

Don’t get me wrong: As a political activist who was 17 when I went to my first caucus, I value the chance to help shape the direction of the Republican Party in that way.  Political parties rely on active engagement from their members to succeed; the caucus-assembly process is one way both Republicans and Democrats have done that. 

Former State Sen. Kevin Lundberg recently argued that the concept of an open primary “defeats the basic concept of registered voters voluntarily aligning themselves with a political party…It puts much of the decision in the hands of non-Republican voters.”  In essence, if a voter chooses not to affiliate with a party, what business does that voter have in selecting that party’s candidates?

Lundberg also contends that open primaries discourage party affiliation, which parties rely upon in numerous ways, and make “campaigning for public office much more expensive for the candidates, as the pool of potential primary election voters has essentially doubled.”  Average citizens, he insists, are pushed out from “being able to compete in this ultra-expensive system.”

Lundberg’s arguments exemplify why I oppose open primaries and voted against Prop 108.  Next month, the Colorado Republican Central Committee will vote whether to end Republicans’ participation in open primaries.  Thing is, this opt-out won’t just end the “open” part of primaries.  It would terminate Republican primaries altogether. 

Think back to 2016 and the visceral feeling of disenfranchisement from Trump supporters.  Imagine that on a statewide scale.  While the most active Republicans will hold greater sway in shaping the party’s direction, it may be accomplished at the exclusion of everyday Republicans who aren’t entrenched in politics and don’t understand the convoluted caucus-assembly process.

They will see Democrats running ads touting their primary and wonder where their Republican ballot is.  If everyday Republican voters do hear about caucus, they may ask: “How come I have to find time on a Tuesday night, and then Saturdays to attend assemblies, if I want to have a say — while Democrats just mail-in their ballots like it’s October?”

Even more, since Democrats will continue to hold primaries, unaffiliated voters will receive their Democratic primary ballot in the mail and get to cast votes for Democrats only.  Independents who participate in open primaries are historically more likely to vote for the same party in the general as they do in the primary.  Thus, the GOP seriously handicaps itself while benefiting the Democrats.

Not long ago, Colorado was far more Republican than it is today.  If the GOP wishes to reassert itself into a stronger position, it must engage more voters.  Although the push to opt-out of primaries is well-intentioned, doing so risks diminishing the Republican Party beyond repair.

Click here to read the rest of Jimmy’s August 10 column at Colorado Politics, a sister publication of The Washington Examiner.

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