MassGOP Delegates: Would a Primary for Gov Help?

This Saturday, Massachusetts Republican Delegates will gather for our convention. We will engage in a variety of party-building activities. But one of the most important decisions we must make is this: should we have a primary for governor by giving Mark Fisher 15% of our support, or should we say no and put forth Charlie Baker as our sole candidate for November? I will seek to provide a non-partisan way of looking at it. That’s right – I will not consider the views of the two men as a major feature of the case.

What are party primaries for?

The leadership of any party could simply meet and choose someone to be the candidate in a general election. However, primaries are considered a good way for candidates and party groups to compete for the nomination. That competition should be a test of message, organization, fundraising, character, and readiness. It gives a lesser-known candidate a chance to prove that they are better than someone who is favored by the “establishment.” The current Democratic primary for governor is a great example of how a party primary can help. There are five candidates with different styles and views, and it isn’t clear who would be the best candidate. They are using their primary to figure that out.

But there are two key things to consider when discussing the benefits of a primary.

Primaries have a cost

Primaries aren’t free. Lots of money is spent that will not be used in a general election. People who would spend time working for the general election candidate will spend time on a candidate who will lose. The sponsoring party cannot direct its resources to either candidate until one is chosen, when if there was only one candidate, they could support that person immediately.  That situation is worse here than in many other states, as the primary is so late (September!?).

Primaries are only a means to an end

The point of a political party is to win general elections and gain power over government. Period. Everything else they do – including holding primaries – is simply a means to that end. Parties hold primaries because they generally result in better nominees who are more likely to win a general election. When a primary damages a nominee so that he or she does worse in the general election, everyone agrees the primary did *not* work well. There is no better example than the 2012 Republican Presidential Primary when the nominee, Mitt Romney, was damaged badly and emerged with an enormous increase in voters who viewed him negatively.

This leaves us with the question we must answer:

Is a primary the right means for the MassGOP to produce a better candidate in this election, and is it worth the cost?

It is time to leave behind hypothetical costs and benefits of primaries and discuss Mark Fisher, Charlie Baker, Massachusetts, the Republican Party here, and the Democrat we will face in November.

First, our candidate will face a battle-tested, well-financed, popular candidate who survived a tough and expensive Democratic Party primary. Unlike our party, theirs unites behind their nominee. He or she will, according to all polling, will most likely be slightly ahead of our candidate. The major media, not being particularly friendly to Republicans, will probably lean toward supporting their nominee and not ours.

For Fisher supporters to have a good case for the primary in the minds of a party that is largely behind Baker, they need to have reasons to believe that his campaign would, at a minimum, help Charlie Baker win. Can he improve Baker’s ability to raise money? I don’t see that. If anything, a small percent of Fisher’s money might go to Baker in the fall. Name recognition? Baker’s is decent now, but not fantastic, yet I don’t really see the boost he would get and I doubt the media would take great interest in this primary. Message? Outreach? I don’t see how debating a man whose views on social issues are the opposite of those of the voting public helps Baker refine his message. It would be different if Fisher were a champion for women or the urban poor or some constituency Baker needs to reach out to. But it is Charlie Baker who is high-fiving young black men in the inner city, not Mark Fisher. Organization? I don’t see that either. If Fisher had a large following and great organization across the state, perhaps that might stimulate Baker to improve his operation. But Fisher does not have an existing statewide following. Character? They are both good men. Charlie has displayed his public character and fitness for high office for years. Unlike Fisher, he is not new to high office or politics.

So, if there is some benefit to a primary with Fisher, I have yet to hear it. Yes, Fisher’s views are more in line with a good piece of the party base, but this isn’t about preparing Baker to win the votes of the 8% of the state that considers themselves “very conservative.” This is about winning more than two-thirds of Massachusetts unenrolled voters who don’t consider themselves very conservative. Debating the party base is irrelevant to winning those people, and pulling Baker toward people who hold harsh views toward government and who hold minority views on social issues – is only going to cost him votes.

What about the cost?

Could I see Fisher’s people making some good argument that Baker would benefit just a little from a primary? Even if they could do that, we have to look at the cost.

The Democrats are going to spend a lot of money and time on their primary. It is going to be very costly for them. However, they are a strong, healthy, well-financed party. They can afford it.

We, on the other hand, are a party “in tatters” as the Boston Globe said yesterday. Yes, there are some hopeful signs this year in organization, data, and messaging. But our win/loss record on the higher offices is so poor, that if we don’t win any of them again this year, the risk is great that the media, the donors, and the volunteers will stop treating us as if we are a statewide party. I have seen Chairman Hughes, Charlie Baker, and Richard Tisei all asked by pundits if there is any point in the MassGOP continuing to even compete for high office if they can’t win this year. They look at Scott Brown having to leave the state to run again. It’s ominous.

Assumptions that we will just find our way back eventually are wrong. The national Republican party shows no sign of making the brand more palatable to the NorthEast and the right-wing media that enters homes in Massachusetts every night shows no signs of accommodating our politics at all. Worse, a few states, frustrated with weakness of one party, are establishing a top-two primary system that allows two Democrats to compete in the general, as it will serve the voters better. We already have this in cities like Boston with non-partisan elections. (No one thought the Clark-Addinivola race served anyone in that Congressional District. Many thought a Clark-Koutoujian race would have served the people better. They’re right.) If Ryan Fattman is really destined to be our governor in the year 2026, it won’t matter if there is no infrastructure, no donors, and no volunteers there to support him. Look how things are here in Boston! It doesn’t matter if we have a great candidate. No one is going to invest the huge resources needed if there is no chance to get to the general election.

Also, if we don’t win in the fall, we will have eight more years of a Democrat making all the high-office appointments. Another eight years where the next Dan Winslows and Charlie Bakers won’t be able to serve the government at high levels. Another eight years where Republican campaign operatives continue to leave this state for better opportunities elsewhere. It will not matter if we have a few dozen state reps. They can’t generate enough job opportunities or money to support a statewide party. There isn’t enough of a bench in candidates or operatives. We will just be a regional party.

What I am saying is this: the party is not in some kind of lull. We are in a do-or-die situation. We either win back the governorship this fall, or the Democrats, the media, and the voters will realize we are in a permanent one-party state where the Brad Jones’s of the world make noise, but few listen to them. The stakes are far too high for our party to take on a primary that is all cost and little reward. Baker needs every advantage he can get. The MassGOP supporting him for several months while the MassDems cannot support their nominee during that time is one of his few advantages. We cannot take that away from him in the name of generic arguments about process that aren’t about life in 2014. Yes, we had primaries for governor long ago where the nominee won – as Fisher’s people told me on the phone. Things are far different now. Things are worse now. I look forward to a stronger healthier party some day where we can afford costly primaries for high office. But what we could afford in 2002, we cannot afford in 2014. It is Baker or Bust for this party. We can let nothing get in the way.

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