The issue of whether or not Republicans should move to an open primary format seems to be dominating the political debate right now, especially since MDGOP Chairman Diana Waterman – correctly, in my view – convened a committee to study the issue.
The arguments on both sides are well-known.
Proponents of the idea such as myself believe it is a way to engage the state’s fastest growing voting bloc – so-called “Unaffiliated voters” – in the candidate nominating activities of the state’s minority party, perhaps helping to build the countervailing force to the majority Democrats the state is sorely missing.
Opponents of the idea believe it creates opportunities for Democrats to make mischief during the GOP primary process, ultimately resulting in dilution of the party’s core values and beliefs.
But the most interesting debate seems to be the one going on in Ellen Sauerbrey’s head.
Former House of Delegates Minority Leader, two-time gubernatorial nominee, Republican National Committeewoman, and Bush ambassador, Mrs. Sauerbrey obviously still engenders respect among Maryland Republicans. Clearly she was trying to leverage that goodwill when she sent this message to the members of the Waterman Committee.
“I understand that you have been appointed to a Republican Central Committee group to make recommendations on our Primary process. I am writing to you to express my strong opposition to the proposal to open the Republican Primary to Independents. As you know, this was tried once (in 2008 I believe) and was abandoned as a bad idea. Seems bad ideas don’t die.
“I note that the Baltimore Sun which is always promoting a strong Republican party (LOL) thinks this is the way to grow our party. They make no argument about how this will help the Republican party except that we should ‘invite them (Independents) in’, dilute our ‘far-right faction’ and that we need more moderate candidates like Olympia Snowe, that presumably would happen because we open our primary. Is this our agenda????
“As for expanding the party, I think it would have the opposite effect. As more and more people are choosing to register Independent, enabling Independents to vote in our Primary takes away one more incentive to register Republican. I predict that should this be adopted we will see fewer people registering Republican.
“As a candidate for the legislature and for Governor, I always had a primary. I purchased the voter list and focused my attention on Republican voters in the primary, as most of our candidates do. To allow Independents to vote adds a wild card that will add unnecessary cost to mailings since candidates will have no idea who will turn out to vote. Take a statewide race where we have a contested Republican Primary. Adding Independents to the mix vastly expands the universe our candidates have to reach. Raising money is tough enough without adding to candidate costs.
“My biggest objection comes from what we see at the national level. Several of the early primary states have open or crossover primaries. The impact is indisputable. Open primaries in early states have, for example, given us John McCain as our nominee because those early primaries have such impact on the rest of the campaign. And take the last election where Obama had no opposition. There was every incentive for liberals to vote in those early open primaries and vote for the weakest or most ‘moderate’ Republican candidate.
“It may be considered an old fashioned idea by our friends at the Baltimore Sun, but I believe if you want to have a vote in any organization, you should be a member, So join our club or don’t whine because you have no voice in choosing our leaders!!
“I urge you to oppose this bad idea.”
Yet, back in 1999, when Maryland Republicans were debating the merits of an open primary system, Mrs. Sauerbrey was quoted in the May 23rd, 1999 edition of the Washington Post as espousing a very different message:
“Among Maryland's Republicans, the fight over opening the primary was seen by many as a split between moderates and conservatives. But many leaders -- including conservatives such as Sauerbrey -- said the measure had a practical goal: to help Republicans win.
"'I was conservative before conservative was cool, and I'm still a conservative to the marrow of my bones,' she told the convention. But, she said, 'we cannot move our agenda forward if we don't elect more Republicans. We can't do it by ourselves. Independents have chosen not to be Democrats, and I want them to take a closer look at our party.'"
So, what’s changed?
Mrs. Sauerbrey would no doubt argue now that she learned from the party’s brief experiment with open primaries in 2000 (not 2008, as Mrs. Sauerbrey incorrectly stated in her message), particularly because such tampering results in dangerous liberals like John McCain and Olympia Snowe being unleashed on helpless GOP primary voters.
But I’d argue that the open primary experiment was terminated too soon. Its value cannot be correctly judged unless we see what kind of impact it would have on nominations for state and local offices as well (2000 was a presidential rather than a gubernatorial cycle in Maryland).
If Mrs. Sauerbrey wishes to speak out on this issue, then she needs to explain her change in position. Otherwise, she’ll come across as merely another faded spokesperson opining on behalf of the sepulcher wing of the MDGOP.