Two elections held earlier this month in New York and Pennsylvania dramatically illustrate what happens when candidates are allowed to compete for their party's nomination rather than being selected by party bosses.
In New York a vacancy occurred in the 23rd Congressional District when President Obama tapped Congressman John M. McHugh to become Secretary of the Army. McHugh, a Republican, represented a district that had been in the GOP column for generations.
A special election was set to fill the seat and the respective political parties selected the candidates. In the case of the Republicans, Republican county chairmen met and picked Dierdre Scozzafava. Scozzafava quickly was revealed to be more liberal than President Obama triggering a backlash among the party's conservative base. Enter Republican Doug Hoffman who was tapped to run on the Conservative Party line. Suffice it to say the division among Republican ranks resulted in Democrat Bill Owens winning the election.
The tone deafness of the district's Republican chairmen in selecting someone so far out of the mainstream as Scozzafava caused the split which cost the GOP the election. It is a prime example of what happens when an insular group of insiders selects party candidates.
Contrast what happened in New York to the scenario which unfolded in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court race. In that contest Republican voters determined the party's candidate through a contested primary. Three well qualified candidates competed in the primary with Judge Joan Orie Melvin emerging as the winner.
At that point the party had reached consensus. Judge Melvin proved to be a broadly acceptable candidate who energized the party's conservative base, but also had the active and aggressive backing of the GOP establishment. With this united support Melvin overcame a 1.2 million voter registration deficit and easily outdistanced her opponent on Election Day. Further, the GOP unity also produced wins in five of six other statewide judicial races on the ballot that same day.
The lesson here is one that goes to the core of Republican political thought: competition works. Candidates who compete freely and openly in a contested primary emerge battle tested, and with a mandate to carry the party's banner into the General Election. The supporters of losing candidates who have had the opportunity to take their case to voters are more likely to support the ultimate winner than if their candidate has had the door shut in his or her face by party elders.
This is an important lesson for Pennsylvania Republicans to ponder as the GOP approaches critical elections in 2010 for governor, lieutenant governor and U.S. Senator. A three-way primary is shaping up for governor, a two person field has been established for U.S. Senator, and a half dozen or more candidates are testing the waters for lieutenant governor.
Although candidates prefer to have the field cleared and to run unopposed through the primary, the competition actually does them good. Recent history proves the point. In 1978, Dick Thornburgh ran for governor in a hotly contested primary (that interestingly included Arlen Specter), prevailed and scored an upset victory over heavily favored Pittsburgh Mayor Peter Flaherty in the General Election. In 1994, Tom Ridge won in a crowded primary field and went on to defeat sitting Lt. Governor Mark Singel in the fall. Conversely, in years where party leaders have cleared the field — think Mike Fisher in 2002 and Lynn Swann in 2006 — the GOP has lost decisively.
Thus the ever growing field of contenders for statewide office next year should be viewed as an example of the GOP's health and vitality. If the party chooses to endorse, and there are good arguments for not (especially among the large field of lieutenant governor candidates), it must not make the mistake of exerting pressure on the non-endorsed candidates to exit their respective races.
Healthy high profile statewide contests excite voters, generate new registrations, and give the news media something to cover. All of this lays the groundwork for an effective General Election campaign. As 2010 approaches party leaders ought to throw open the doors to all comers and allow the candidates to compete freely for the party nomination. Just as happened in this year's Supreme Court race the strongest candidate for each office will emerge making victory in November all the more likely.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal.)