The retirement announcement Tuesday by Republican U.S. Senator Jeff Flake opens the door for several difficult conversations, depending on your politics.
For mainstream Republicans, it’s a wakeup call that one of their own doesn’t think the pleasure of their company is worth enduring the dysfunction any longer. Not only that, he holds them partially responsible for enabling what he calls a “flagrant disregard of truth and decency” in the nation’s capital.
For Democrats, Flake is about as close as a Senate Republican comes to being bipartisan. He worked across the aisle on comprehensive immigration reform and forest restoration. Now, with 16 months left and leaving a Senate seat open, do Democrats work with Flake or harden their positions ahead of the November 2018 election?
And for the tea party and the alt-right -- the latter a loose collection of nationalists, white supremacists and anti-government conspiracy theorists -- there may be satisfaction in shouldering aside an establishment conservative even before the primary. But the 2016 cycle saw four tea party conservatives make the Senate ballot in the general election only to lose races that more moderate Republicans might have won. Are these the best candidates that the parties can offer voters?
So to the extent that Flake’s early announcement was due in part to the electoral process in place for party primaries, we’d offer another topic for a difficult conversation: an open primary system that advances the top two vote-getters to the November runoff. It’s not a new conversation – we’ve attempted to start one on these pages before. But moderate voters are hard to engage, especially if the parties insist that the extremist polarization of recent years is just a passing fad.
That might be believable, were it not for the increasingly tight grip of hard-line, special interest money on candidates since the Citizens United decision opened the corporate financial floodgates. Party primaries no longer offer a viable path for moderate or centrist candidates to make the general election ballot – the big spenders like the Kochs and George Soros have shown that saturation mailers and broadcast ads in low-turnout primaries push out moderates most every time.
So instead, the top-two system doesn’t guarantee a party a spot in the general election if they can’t field candidates with broad enough support in the primary. On the other hand, one party can place two members on the November ballot – and in most cases, at least one will be a moderate by appealing to voters across party lines. Remember, in top-two, every voter casts a primary vote for the same ballot.
So how would top-two have worked with Flake, who was attacked from the right as not being sufficiently loyal to the Trump agenda? Alt-right voters would no doubt have turned out solidly for ultra-conservative Kelli Ward. But Flake would have drawn those establishment Republicans who bothered to turn out for an August primary, bolstered by independents and even some Democrats who knew that finishing second was as good as first. And a third candidate, likely Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, would have taken most of the Democratic vote.
The likely outcome? Ward and Flake might just make the November runoff because of higher-than-usual Republican turnout in the primary. But Flake would win by a landslide in November thanks to Democratic support.
Without a top two system, Flake could run as an independent in November if he thought he wouldn’t be splitting Republican votes with Ward and handing the seat to Sinema. Voters would at least have a choice of an establishment conservative in the general election, but the American system is set up for a binary choice, not a proportional one. Keeping it top two in the primary election would assure that choice – and promote at least one candidate who comes from the middle, not the extremes.