The Weakness of the PA Dems in Primaries

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A devastating point from Rich Wilkins about the PA Dems’ track record in recent primaries:

Bob Casey was endorsed over Ed Rendell in 2002. Arlen Specter was endorsed over Joe Sestak in 2010. State Rep. Scott Conklin wasn’t endorsed for Lieutenant Governor in 2010, nor was Kathleen Kane for Attorney General in 2012. Primaries have a checkered recent history for endorsed candidates. There are advantages for being able to use the party’s abilities, but in the end of the day, it just doesn’t matter that much. If the people in that room all got up and went home and started knocking doors, that would change. There are some members though who just don’t put in that level of work.

The two basic functions of political parties are

1) Aggregating the issue positions of activists and interest groups into a legislative agenda that can sustain a majority governing coalition

2) Organizing to elect candidates who support that legislative agenda, part of which involves intervening in primary elections to balance partisan purity against general electability.

The PA Democratic Party does not do either of these things particularly well.

There isn’t much of a coherent forward-looking party agenda on state level issues, and there is no detectable effort to expand the coalition of party-aligned interest groups beyond labor.

On the second point, lots of people like to complain about the party getting involved in primaries, and I used to think that was a problem. Nowadays though, my problem is that the party endorses in primaries for unclear reasons, and then their candidates lose, making them look ineffectual.

The problem is that the party doesn’t get involved in primaries to enforce orthodoxy on issue positions. People joke about endorsing candidates based on who has the best spread at the committee gathering. I don’t really believe that’s what happens, but my point is that the endorsement process should primarily be an instrument of party discipline, not just a popularity contest.

The second half of the point is that the candidates lose because the state party machine doesn’t actually have the organizing might to ensure that party-backed candidates always win. There’s no way to enforce party discipline on some future issue agenda if you can’t make a credible threat that candidates without party support will lose elections. The candidates without party support keep winning the primaries.

Rich points the way forward here. Committee members need to be expected to actually organize in their communities. They need to be required to raise money or donate their own money, and to work phones and doors in the weeks before both election days.

This entry was posted in Elections.

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