When Pennsylvania state treasurer Bob Casey (D) was beckoned by his party to challenge Sen. Rick Santorum (R) in next year’s midterm elections, he dutifully accepted, with one stipulation: There could be no primary race. If the party wanted Casey’s name on the ballot, it would vacate the primary election, and he would enter the midterm as the presumptive nominee.

Sarah Royce

These were rather bold terms for a state treasurer to demand of his party leadership, especially while being recruited for one of the country’s most coveted Senate seats. But this was no ordinary state treasurer: son of the late two-term governor and Pennsylvania legend Robert Casey Sr., Bobby Jr. carries a star-studded pedigree. A pro-life, labor-friendly moderate in his father’s tradition, Casey’s politics play exceptionally well with the state’s heavily unionized middle class. His 2004 bid for treasurer – in which he received the largest popular mandate state voters have ever given a public officeholder – caught the attention of national leadership, most notably Sen. Charles Schumer (D-New York), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. According to The New Yorker, Pennsylvania was Schumer’s “Number one take-back seat,” and the chairman wasn’t going to rest until Casey, the state’s newfound political darling, was on board.

It should come as no surprise that Schumer, all too aware of the dangers of wearing a pro-life label in a Democratic primary, was quick to elbow out Casey’s competitors. With the help of Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell (D), Schumer sidelined Barbara Hafer, the pro-choice movement’s trophy pick and a feature candidate of Emily’s List, a Washington-based advocacy group that sponsors pro-choice female politicians. Despite polling poorly against Santorum, Hafer had been the Democrats’ early favorite in the primary. It was a nasty bullet to bite, immediately exposing Schumer – a steadfast champion of reproductive freedom – to attacks from the pro-choice lobby. But it proved worthwhile, as head-to-head polling now shows Casey with a commanding lead, somewhere in the neighborhood of 14 and 20 points.

There are lessons to be learned here. Most importantly, it’s become clear that the Democratic Party’s primary system has been hijacked by special interests and when left to its own devices, will consistently favor the candidates who can best jockey for financial sponsors. As a result, a disproportionate number of primary winners hail from the political fringe. When a moderate does manage to walk out of a Democratic primary, he’s usually limping.

The politics of abortion exemplify this. Advocacy groups like the National Organization for Women and Planned Parenthood wield enormous power during primary season, withholding support from all but the most uncompromising pro-choice advocates and steering the abortion debate to the left. Candidates are sent into general elections with insensitively narrow positions on abortion, weakening their appeal and lending credibility to conservative charges that the Democratic Party’s position on abortion is sounding more pro-abortion than pro-choice.

The problem is not that the primary system promotes divisive candidates; it’s that it scares away born frontrunners like Bob Casey, who if not for an aggressive intervention by national party leaders, would still be crunching numbers in Harrisburg. Casey doesn’t embody the pulse of the party, but he’s a practical thinker and a political blessing compared to Santorum – a soldier of the religious right who, when push comes to shove, remains in lockstep with the Bush administration. For a party six years removed from the White House and trailing nine seats in the Senate, it’s numbers that count. Majorities – not moral fiber – build strong parties, and so long as Democrats remain in the political margins, they’ll have to open their tent to new voices. That’s what Schumer did in Pennsylvania, and it’s paying dividends.

Our primary system hasn’t always been like this. Before the television age, the nomination process was insulated; most appointments occured behind closed doors where party leaders handpicked candidates. Calls for transparency during the progressive era brought the selection process out in the open, and components of democracy were introduced.

What’s left now is a thoughtless and perverted system – a spending contest in which special interests exploit low voter participation to push through financially dependent politicians. Until Democrats can rely on a primary system that produces marketable candidates, it will be up to party leaders to pick the winners. If that means all of 2006’s frontrunners are selected in smoked filled rooms, so be it.

 

Singer can be reached at singers@umich.edu.

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