It’s All about the Primaries

He’s already given political culture one of the great euphemisms ever for having an affair. And now the Appalachian trail walker, Mark Sanford, has become a terrific example of one of the core ideas of political parties and democracy: It’s all about the primaries.

Sanford won back his old House seat in a special election on Tuesday. Smart liberal commentators noted that Republicans had little choice. Paul Krugman:

Given their preferences, this was the right thing to do. Look, we have an intensely polarized political system, and in Congress, at least, party affiliation is basically all that matters.

Kevin Drum concurs: “For all practical purposes, we live in a pseudo-parliamentary system of governance, and the only thing that matters in Congress is what party you belong to.”

Party affiliation is so important that indeed, in almost all circumstances voters are smart to support their party’s nominee in general elections, who will represent their interests in a predictable and consistent way. Republican voters who share the issue preferences of House Republicans did the right thing by renominating Sanford in South Carolina’s first congressional district. They would have been foolish to believe the Democratic candidate’s protestations that she would have been a conservative Democrat—after all, the most conservative Democrats in Congress are more liberal than the most liberal Republicans. And they would have been indulging their surface moralism at the expense of their policy preferences had they refused to vote for Sanford because of his personal misbehavior.

But Krugman and Drum are missing the rest of the story. Even in the party-dominated House of Representatives, members of Congress are not interchangeable. Indeed, same-party members of Congress differ in at least two important ways.

First, there really are ideological differences within parties. Even an extreme case—think retired Senator Joe Lieberman—is still going to fall within the broad range of the party’s policy preferences. But Lieberman was going to oppose Democrats on some votes, and sometimes important votes, on which current Connecticut senators Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy would stick with their parties.

That’s easy to see in Stanford University political scientist Simon Jackman’s graph of Senators' ideology during the current Congress. All Democrats are more liberal than any Republican, and there’s a gap in the middle containing only Democrat Joe Manchin and Republicans Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Mark Kirk. But still, there’s a long distance between the very liberal Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, on the one hand, and moderates Kay Hagan and Mark Pryor, on the other. Even within the same state (which should hint at the ideological diversity among plausible winners who might face each other in a contested primary) there appear to be real differences between Minnesotans Al Franken (more liberal) and Amy Klobuchar (less), and, speaking of South Carolina, between Tim Scott (more conservative) and Lindsey Graham (less).

But ideological differences aren’t all. North Dakota Senator Kent Conrad was obsessed with budget deficits; his replacement, Heidi Heitkamp, presumably is not. Same thing with Oklahoma deficit hawk Tom Coburn and the other Oklahoma senator, Jim Inhofe, who spends his time on climate change denial.

In other words, members of Congress, even beyond how they vote on the House or Senate floor, specialize in different issues. And that matters. Bills don’t write themselves; they don’t advance without someone who cares about them putting in serious effort. That’s even true to some extent with the big headline issues, but it’s even more true with the dozens and dozens of second- or third-tier issues which aren’t going to dominate national campaigns, but might be very important for a smaller number of citizens.

So it can matter quite a bit to policy outcomes exactly which Democrats or which Republicans are in office. And that overlooks a key difference among members—some are far more interested in actually governing than others. That matters to parties, too. Democrats were able to capitalize on their 2009-2010 supermajorities in part because Henry Waxman was in the House and ready to capitalize on the opportunity. No Henry Waxman (and a few other experienced legislators) and, perhaps, no Affordable Care Act.

By the general election it’s too late to do anything about that. There’s little for a partisan voter to do but to stick with the party. But that doesn’t mean that nothing else matters.

And that’s why anyone who really wants to have a meaningful effect will get involved in the nomination stage. Indeed, I’d advise anyone that if it’s going to be one or another, the time to vote is in primary elections, and so is the time to give money or volunteer time. Fortunately, there’s no need to choose in most cases, but nevertheless that’s where individual leverage is the greatest. Because, really, the differences between same-party Members can be tremendous.

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