AMAC Exclusive – By Andrew Abbott
Last month, progressives reveled in the primary defeat of controversial Republican Congressman Madison Cawthorn (NC-11). The first-term incumbent and unabashed Trump supporter was considered a rising star within the party before a series of scandals and public controversy caused his political prospects to quickly dim. But despite the left celebrating his defeat as a sign that the country was rejecting “Trump-style” and “Trump-supporting” candidates in favor of more politically moderate legislators, a new report reveals that Cawthorn’s downfall – as well as the defeat of several other Trump-backed candidates – may have had more to do with Democrats infiltrating Republican primaries than Republican voters themselves rejecting candidates.
According to a report from The Washington Post, several thousand Democratic voters voted against Cawthorn in the Republican primary, effectively guaranteeing his defeat. They were able to do so by taking advantage of North Carolina’s “semi-closed primary.” In the state, voters declare themselves as “Democratic, Republican, or Libertarian” and can only participate in primaries for their declared party. However, they can also register as “Unaffiliated.” This permits them to vote in whichever primary they choose. As the Post explains:
“From time to time, politicians and political entrepreneurs take advantage of this by trying to persuade unaffiliated voters who usually favor one party to vote in instead and sabotage the opposing party’s primary….In 2022, a number of groups in NC-11, including the “American Muckrakers” Political Action Committee (also known as the “Fire Madison PAC”) tried this tactic, encouraging NC-11 Democratic voters to temporarily change their party affiliation to unaffiliated, vote in the Republican primary, and support centrist Republican Wendy Nevarez.”
In Cawthorn’s district, more than 3,000 voters switched from “Democratic” to “Unaffiliated.” This figure was almost three times the average in North Carolina’s other 13 districts, and far more than any other recent primary. Of these Democrat-turned-unaffiliated voters, 1,754 cast ballots in the Republican primary. While this may seem like a relatively small figure, Cawthorn lost his primary by only 1,384 votes.
North Carolina’s primary process is far from the only one that has conservatives concerned. In 15 states, voters participate in “open primaries.” In these elections, registered voters can choose which primary they wish to participate in. This means that if one party’s candidate is unopposed in their primary, members of that party can freely vote in and upend the results of the opposite party’s election.
In Georgia, this is precisely what happened – again to the detriment of Trump-backed candidates. In the May 24th Georgia Republican primary, 37,000 voters who had cast ballots for Democrats in 2020 cast ballots for Republicans this time around. Perhaps unsurprisingly, several Trump-endorsed primary challengers, including former Senator David Perdue, who was vying to unseat Governor Brian Kemp, struggled against incumbents who were likely the beneficiaries of those Democrats voting in the Republican primary.
One of the biggest proponents of this strategy is Congressman Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) – an avowed anti-Trump Republican who has worked with Democrats on the January 6 Select Committee. According to the Associated Press, Kinzinger actively encouraged Independents and Democrats to manipulate the results of Republican primaries through his political organization Country First, which “targeted thousands of former Georgia Democrats with mailers and text messages urging them to support [Georgia Secretary of State Brad] Raffensperger for the sake of democracy.” Specifically, Country First sent text messages to Georgia voters that read “Don’t wait until the general election to go after the extremes. Vote in the Republican Primary for the candidate that supports truth and democracy.”
This growing phenomenon has led many Republicans to call for reforms and even an end to open primaries. Yet, no incumbent has expressed any interest in seeking such reforms in Georgia, or in any other state that continues to hold open primaries.
Mainstream outlets are calling this new tactic “strategic crossover voting,” and seem to encourage the practice. Many publications have labeled closed primaries “anti-democratic,” arguing that they force Independents to make a binary choice between parties. But this argument belies the fundamental purpose of a primary, which is for a political party to decide whom they wish to represent their interests in a general election. As was demonstrated in North Carolina, Georgia, and other states, semi-closed and open primaries can dramatically cripple the integrity of this process, and effectively prevent a candidate who most Republican voters in an electorate might support from making it onto the ballot.
The likeliest result of this process continuing will be for political parties to allow fewer candidates to run in said primaries. If there are several candidates and the primary is likely to be close, the opposite party can simply tip the scales to whichever candidate is weakest. The only protection against this would be for political parties to limit the number of primary candidates, thus making the process even less democratic.
Ultimately, the abuse of the open primaries system goes against the common-sense idea that Republicans should select the Republican candidate, while Democrats should select the Democratic candidate. By incentivizing political partisans to help select the candidate of the other party who they feel is the weakest, a basic premise of democracy – that voters will select candidates who represent their interests – is turned on its head. If our political leaders truly care about “protecting democracy,” they may do well to start with ending open primaries for good.
Andrew Abbott is the pen name of a writer and public affairs consultant with over a decade of experience in DC at the intersection of politics and culture.
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