WA04: For 2014, Primary Election Reformers Get Their Wish

For the first time since Washington state’s top-two primary emerged in 2008, two Republicans will face off in the general election (Clint Didier and Dan Newhouse).   No Democrat will appear on the general election ballot.

The race will be an interesting one-off test of Washington’s top-two primary system.  Proponents hope the system will attract independent voters into the primary process, create competitive races in general elections in places where one party tends to dominate, and motivate candidates to compete for centrist voters who are ignored in a traditional closed primary.

Did the open primary format promote more moderate candidacies, as proponents hope it will?  Will one of the candidates (Newhouse, presumably) take advantage of the district’s large Latino population, as reformers would expect to see?  A single race reveals little, but here are a few considerations I would want to analyze.

1.  On the surface, we only see two paleo-conservatives, and if neither tries to moderate or change the conversation, the desired moderating effect will be hard to notice.

But WA-04 is a conservative district; Romney beat Obama 59.7 – 37.9.  Of the 226 districts where Romney beat Obama, WA-04 is 100th (close to the median).   Maybe the result does reflect some kind of centering.

But perhaps not, because (arguably) the result is going to reflect only the result you would see in an ordinary Republican primary.

2.  The combined Didier/Newhouse total is 57%-ish.   The result is (arguably) a result of the open seat effect, and competition between Didier and Newhouse.

If so, Democrats might say “We would rather influence a race between two Republicans who might compete for our voters, rather than hoist a sacrificial lamb in the general election.”  So we should notice if (and how) either candidate tries to attract Democrats.

3.  The turnout in this election was very low.  Where were the independents who supposedly sit out during closed primaries?

4.  Didier’s minor celebrity status could give him a way to appeal to non-Republicans (or at least trigger their memory when choosing), raising this question: does valence give a candidate a way to attract centrist voters without appearing to be less radicalized?  In other words, can Didier protect his conservative bona fides by leveraging his celebrity status?  Does celebrity status, or the use of any other alternative to the first dimension of ideology, dampen the primary’s theoretical moderating effect?

5.  Finally, if the race is positioned as a “tea party vs. mainstream GOP” battle, with Didier the clear Tea Party favorite, does Newhouse (perhaps slightly less of a tea party favorite than Didier) try a Thad Cochran strategy of some sort?  WA-04 is 36% Latino.  If Newhouse tries the Cochran strategy with Latino voters, primary reformers have something to cheer about.

The last possibility, or some variation of it, should quicken the pulse of politics geeks everywhere.  Will the Chinese proverb May you find what you are looking for look like a blessing, or a curse?

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