By Dan Sally
So far this election cycle, Republicans appear poised to do more to help Democrats maintain control of the Senate than Democrats themselves.
Over the past few months, rising inflation and supply chain issues have taken a back seat to the presence of fringe candidates with a history of anti-gay and anti-muslim comments in one Republican primary, two candidates nearly getting in a fist fight on stage in another, and the Senate’s Republican campaign chief, Rick Scott, openly feuding with Mitch McConnell over the latter’s criticism of the quality of GOP Senate candidates this election cycle.
Then, New Hampshire’s Republican party continued the Democratic winning streak by nominating Dan Bolduc, a retired general who has claimed that COVID-19 vaccines contain microchips, to run against Democrat incumbent Maggie Hassan. Since last week’s Republican primary, FiveThirtyEight reports the odds of Hassan winning reelection increased by 8 points.
The NH primary and the two aforementioned ones have two things in common:
- They’re all states Republicans could feasibly win in November
- All candidates won their primary with less than 40% of the vote
In taking a closer look at the election, some clear weaknesses in the primary process become clear.
New Hampshire – A Potential Win for the GOP
At the last polling of Democratic voters in the state, nearly 80% wanted someone other than Joe Biden to run in 2024. More recent polling shows Biden’s approval rating at 43% among all New Hampshire voters. New Hampshire is a state that’s never been easy to categorize from a partisan standpoint, unless radical independent is on the list of options. The majority of voters identify as pro-choice and it has a strong tradition of rejecting regulation on gun ownership.
In this sense, a Republican who’s less than mainstream from a national perspective could feasibly win against Hassan in November. Polling prior to Bolduc securing the nomination showed Hassan’s approval rating slightly underwater at around 48%. Add to that the national headwinds facing the Democratic Party, and the job becomes even easier.
While Bolduc certainly couldn’t be described as an establishment Republican, he seemed to go overboard embracing policies that appeal to the MAGA wing of the party during the primary. While on the campaign trail, he endorsed the idea that Trump was the rightful winner of the 2020 election and has advocated for the abolishment of the FBI.
In a more reliably red state these comments might not have an impact, but in a state that voted for Biden over Trump by 7 points, they could be problematic.
The Democratic Party Bets Big on Bolduc
Republicans have misgivings about Bolduc during the primary, however he was the clear first choice for the Democrats. Towards the end of the race, the Democrat’s Senate Majority PAC spent more than $3 million running ads against Bolduc’s closest challenger, New Hampshire Senate President Chuck Morse, while a Republican SuperPAC plowed $4.5 million into the race supporting Morse and attacking Bolduc’s “crazy ideas”.
To put those numbers in perspective, the total Republican candidates spent this primary season comes to about a third of that amount.
Despite being outspent by their Republican opponents, the Democrats scored an upset victory, with Bolduc winning with 37.1% of the vote – just 1.3% more than Morse.
The Candidates Aren’t the Problem – The Primary System Is
Bolduc’s platform may be out of step with many in New Hampshire, but that doesn’t mean it has no support in the state or that his platform shouldn’t be heard. The bedrock of a healthy democracy is that all ideas should have a voice and that voters should decide which candidates best represent their beliefs and values.
The problem is when a system becomes easy enough to game so that a candidate whose ideas don’t reflect that of the majority can win an election with the help of the opposing party. To date, the Democratic Party has spent more in the Republican primary in New Hampshire than it has on its own candidate.
What’s more, in examining where the votes fell, it’s clear New Hampshire Republicans supported candidates more moderate than Bolduc. Third-place candidate Kevin Smith’s platform aligned more similarly with Morse’s, as did fourth-place contender Vikram Mansharamani. Both took 11.7% and 7.5% of the popular vote respectively.
The issue isn’t necessarily that Bolduc doesn’t reflect the values of the New Hampshire Republican Party, but that the system doesn’t necessarily ensure a candidate that does. When a race allows someone with less than 50% support to secure the nomination, it leaves too much room for someone who represents a minority of their party to enter the general election.
Another Northern State Offers a Solution
Similar to New Hampshire, Alaska has a fiercely independent streak and a voter base that can’t be easily fit into either red or blue boxes. They also use the final-four primary system, an open primary where the top four vote-getters move on to the general election, which is determined by ranked choice voting.
This year’s primary could have been similar to New Hampshire’s. Incumbent Lisa Murkowski was one of a handful of Republican Senators who voted for the impeachment of Donald Trump, bringing Trump-backed challenger, Kelly Tschibaka into the fray. Like Bolduc, Tschibaka has aligned herself with the MAGA wing of the Republican Party and has a history of controversial statements, such as endorsing “conversion therapy” for homosexuals in an article she wrote while attending Harvard Law School in 2001.
While Alaska’s history of electing Republicans is stronger than New Hampshire’s (Alaska has elected a Democrat to the US Senate once since 1981 and hasn’t elected a Democratic Governor since 1994), a recent upset by Democrat Mary Peltola in the special election for US House of Representatives shows the electoral math may not be so favorable to the MAGA platform. It should also be noted that the number of Alaskans voting Democrat in the 2020 election was up 6% from 2016.
Less important than the viability of either candidate is the fact that more Republican voices will be heard in the upcoming election. Both moderate and MAGA Republicans will have a voice in the general election in November, and neither will have to decide between voting for a Republican they dislike, supporting the Democratic candidate, or not voting at all.
This reduces the likelihood that Alaskan Republicans could inadvertently hand victory to a Democratic candidate and makes it harder for the opposing party to meddle in the nomination of their candidate.
Republicans have generally voiced concerns of the security of elections in recent years, and place importance on ensuring voters have the ultimate say in who represents them. A primary system that consistently allows candidates with minority support to become the nominee doesn’t represent these values and doesn’t make for a winning strategy.
The GOP has successfully employed ranked choice voting in a number of elections, including statewide and Congressional party-run primaries in Virginia, avoiding much of the drama created by intra-party divisions in recent years.
Among the many electoral reforms the GOP espouses, backing systems such as ranked choice voting should be top of the list.
Dan Sally serves on the Digital Strategy Council of Rank the Vote and is host of the podcast ‘You Don’t Have to Yell’, which discusses today’s most pressing issues without the partisan spin.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Rank the Vote, its members, supporters, funders, or affiliates.