IN VIRGINIA, Republicans have been shunning primaries in recent years. The idea is to narrow the pool of potential voters in order to convene committed party activists who will choose ideologically correct nominees. The effect has been a string of losses in general elections by unimpeachably conservative candidates. Philosophical purity has trumped practical politics.
Now Democrats seem to be following suit — at least in the race for the open seat in Northern Virginia’s 10th Congressional District, where Rep. Frank Wolf, a Republican, is retiring after more than three decades in office. The party has announced that, for two weeks starting March 29, it will hold something called “unassembled caucuses” to select delegates affiliated with candidates, after which the delegates will hold a convention in late April to choose the party nominee.
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If you didn’t follow that, don’t worry: Neither will many potential voters.
Or rather, do worry. The likely result of constructing a nominating process of such mind-bending and needless complexity will be to drive away thousands of potential voters who might otherwise have participated in a party primary. As such, the Democrats’ selection process seems anti-democratic.
The Republicans’ process isn’t any better — though it could have been worse. Eschewing proposals to hold a one-day nominating convention, which would have been dominated by the party faithful, the GOP plans to hold a slightly more open “firehouse primary” on April 26.
The Democrats’ caucuses and the Republicans’ firehouse primary will be open to all registered voters; that’s good. But in both cases, the number of polling stations — about 10, spread out over a district that sprawls through seven counties and three independent cities — is a fraction of the number that would have been available had either party opted for a primary. The GOP will hold its voting on a Saturday, which may be easier for some working folks than a Tuesday election but will be hard for some soccer moms and dads and small-business owners. The Democrats will allow each of the jurisdictions in the district to decide for themselves on a voting date within the two-week window, which exponentially increases the opportunities for confusion.
There is a primary date this year in Virginia: June 10. Republicans thought they would get a jump on Democrats by selecting their candidate on April 26. Democrats then moved their dates up, deciding they could not afford to spot the Republicans a six-week head start.
The district is one of the most evenly split between Democrats and Republicans anywhere; it will be the focus of heavy spending in the fall. Both parties think their nomination methods will enable their candidates to save money for the general election. Both seem to think their nomination scheme will tip the scales toward establishment candidates with strong field operations. None of that helps voters, who haven’t seen an open-seat race in the 10th District for more than 30 years.