Thursday, February 5, 2009

The June Primary

Sen. Terri Bonoff was an early Obama endorser

Chris Truscott and Jeff Rosenberg have posted recently on Sen. Terri Bonoff's proposal to move the state primary from September to June. I called Sen. Bonoff this morning and we talked about the idea a bit.

Elections are unpredictable. When the rules governing state primaries get changed, weird stuff surely happens. Yet we have to ask, 'Will this change help our party?' 'Will it affect the loyal opposition in any special way?' and 'Will the state as a whole benefit from the change?' (And 'What about my ass?')

Bonoff mentions that the existing September primary strongly discourages potential candidates from entering, as party insiders view noisy intra-party fighting--just eight weeks before the general election--as deeply damaging to the party's November prospects.

The Bonoff proposal would shift power from partisan activists to the somewhat less politically committed--from the 24/7 political fiends to the I'd-like-to-attend-the-precinct-caucus-but-Dancing With The Stars-is-on crowd.

I ask Terri what would have happened had her proposal been in effect during the last cycle? She hands me an oracle bone of an answer; I think she believes she good governance might have benefited from the change. Going into last cycle's April 12 CD3 Endorsing Convention without having expressed firm commitment to abide by the result would have greatly weakened either contender.

Setting the primary for June will much reduce the stigma of challenging endorsed candidates. It's early enough for wounds to have healed and for the winning candidate to go on to fight a robust general election campaign--goes the CW. The left being naturally more fractious than the right, we might anticipate harder-fought DFL primary battles. Perhaps.

In the legendary 2008 CD3 DFL endorsement contest, Bonoff's support was top-heavy, with many party leaders and DFL-in-the-blood activists (whose war stories went all the way back to the Al Smith campaign). Ashwin Madia ignited greater excitement among people newer to the process. (Plenty of exceptions on both sides, of course.) Had Madia-Bonoff gone to a June primary, maybe Terri could have pulled it off--but I wouldn't have bet on it.

Should you support moving the primary to June? If you want to destigmatize primary challenges--and thus weaken the power of party insiders--then yes. The 130-or-so DFL Endorsing Convention delegates are to the left of primary voters. In their candidate-selection process, primary voters probably obsess less about a candidate's lengthy history of party loyalty.

But such changes are difficult to game out; results will often confound expectations. I think [if enacted] the Bonoff proposal will--on the congressional level--result in far more primary challenges. We might see CD3 DFL fields with many entrants, in which case the winner might be someone who cobbles together energetic support from the ideologically pure. So it's difficult to say whether the change will favor moderation or encourage ideological candidacies, will increase or decrease the role of early money or will magnify or diminish the prospects of the charismatic.

But I like the idea.

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