Blake: Eric Cantor’s loss, and Colorado’s primary system

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Unlike Virginia, Colorado doesn’t have open primaries — and for that we can be grateful.

They can lead to needless, unhealthy mischief in the selection of a party’s candidate.

The role that Virginia’s process played in the surprising defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the 7th Congressional District Tuesday hasn’t been learned yet, and perhaps never will be.

That’s because those who register to vote in Virginia aren’t asked, or even allowed, to specify the party to which they want to belong. They are simply asked upon entering the precinct polling place which party’s primary they want to vote in. (At least they can’t pick more than one.)

Now supposing the party you identify with doesn’t have a primary contest. Only one candidate has stepped forward. Why wouldn’t you choose to vote in the other party’s primary — for the candidate you think will be the weakest in November? Commentator Rush Limbaugh encouraged crossover voting by Republicans in open-primary states in 2008, hoping to prolong Hillary Clinton’s candidacy and thus bloody front-runner Barack Obama, who seemed certain to beat the Republican candidate, John McCain. He called it “Operation Chaos.”

Cantor had an unlikely primary opponent: David Brat, an economics professor at Randolph-Macon College, a small liberal arts school. The Democrat candidate, who had no challenger Tuesday, is Jack Trammell, a sociology professor at the same school.

Brat’s margin over Cantor was a substantial 56-44, indicating that the incumbent would have lost even if no Democrats voted for the winner. But it’s quite certain that some did. They might have made a difference in a closer race. The district is substantially Republican and Cantor at least has high name recognition. Trammell has a much better chance against a relatively unknown candidate who could well sabotage himself and his campaign by saying the wrong thing at the wrong place — as so many GOP candidates have done in recent years..

In Colorado, it is possible, but much more difficult, to participate in the other party’s primary when your own offers no contest. You have to re-register a month before the primary, either as a member of the other party or as unaffiliated. The latter are allowed to commit to a party and vote in its primary when they go to a polling place, which is hard to find these days. Most people vote by mail, and about three weeks before the primary — which is June 24 this year — the unaffiliated are sent a card inviting them to commit to a party. If they return the card expeditiously they too will be sent a mail primary ballot.

You do have to remember to change back again after the election if you want to participate in future primaries of your own party — or if you want to spare yourself the embarrassment of being publicly identified with the “wrong” party.

Instead of urging crossover voting in the Colorado GOP primary, a liberal group has taken out television ads promoting Tom Tancredo for governor, on the assumption that he would be easier for Democratic incumbent John Hickenlooper to beat than Tancredo’s main rival, Bob Beauprez.

Both parties seem to be happy with the current primary system in Colorado. It’s been in place for decades and wasn’t tampered with in the legislature’s major overhaul last year of the general election law.

Colorado’s hybrid primary system seems to be a happy compromise between open primaries and completely closed primaries, where the unaffiliated can’t declare themselves and vote.

The argument for open primaries is that it is supposed to encourage more nonpartisan voters to participate in the nominating process and thus more likely to vote in the general election as well. That’s a good theory — so long as both parties have primaries for every major office. But they usually don’t, and the result is a system open to manipulation.

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Brat’s victory should encourage those who believe the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t go far enough when it ruled, in the Citizens United case, that money is speech and thus under the First Amendment can’t be limited when corporations, unions and associations make independent expenditures.

The Brat vs. Cantor race didn’t draw a lot of independent expenditures but Cantor raised almost $5.5 million to Brat’s $200,000.

Brat told supporters Tuesday night that there was only one reason he won: “Dollars do not vote — you do.”

In other words, the Supreme Court might as well take the next step and remove limits on individual contributions to candidates. Such limits only benefit the wealthiest candidates, who are free to spend as much of their own money as they want, while their poorer rivals are limited in what they can collect.

If you’re out of touch and become unpopular, no amount of money is going to save you. 

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