Blanket Primaries and the 2020 Georgia Special Election


Hi friends. Let’s talk about Georgia.

New allegations have just surfaced about Kelly Loeffler’s financial activity during the time that she had access to nonpublic information about COVID-19. They include sales of $18.7 million in shares of her husband’s company as well as purchases of $200,000 of stock in a COVID-19 equipment supplier while she was publicly downplaying the COVID-19 threat.

Loeffler, unlike Richard Burr, is up for reelection in 2020. But beating her won’t be so simple.

Because her election is a special election meant to fill the 2-year remainder of Johnny Isakson’s term, it’s being run as a blanket primary on November 3. What this means is that all candidates of all parties will be on the same ballot, and if no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote, there will be a runoff on January 5, 2021.

But the trick of a blanket primary is that the runoff will include the top two finishers, regardless of party. This is, for example, how Kamala Harris’s general election opponent in 2016 was…Democrat Loretta Sanchez.

Setting aside the flaws in a blanket primary system for now, I’ll say that these sorts of one-party lockouts happen fairly infrequently, and they tend to happen in cases where the general election race was likely to be uncompetitive anyway. In order to create a scenario where a competitive race becomes a lock due to a blanket primary, you’d have to have two strong candidates from one party and at least three (but probably more) plausible candidates from the other party.

But this is exactly the situation that we have in Georgia now. Doug Collins, a fourth-term House Rep who is mostly known for saying that Democrats critical of the Soleimani killing are “in love with terrorists”, fought hard to be appointed to Loeffler’s seat and declared his candidacy for the special election almost immediately after she was sworn in. And because Loeffler’s name recognition is so low (and most of her recent coverage has been scandal-related), he’s actually running mostly ahead of her in initial polling, with both of them in the low-to-mid twenties.

However, there are four major Democrats currently running for this seat. And while polling has been sparse, the most recent poll has Collins and Loeffler well above all four of those Democrats. This is a lockout waiting to happen, unless the Democratic field consolidates.

Now, I hate the idea of letting anything other than actual votes decide a primary, but in this case, avoiding an R-R runoff has a huge impact. The two possible Republicans are a super-rich person with no other qualifications and somebody who voted against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act because it would expand coverage to undocumented persons and people in same-sex relationships. And we can influence the Democratic field, through our contributions and our canvassing efforts.

So who is worthy?

There were four Democrats in that poll above, and I’ll go through them one by one.

The party choice is Rev. Raphael Warnock. In addition to the DSCC, he’s also been endorsed by Stacey Abrams, Kirsten Gillibrand, Sherrod Brown, Cory Booker, Jeff Merkley, Chris Murphy, and Brian Schatz. Warnock is the youngest ever head pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, which was the congregation of Martin Luther King Jr. (and run by MLK Sr. for 44 years).

Warnock grew up in public housing and made it through school with Pell Grants, and his message from the pulpit has been one of racial and economic justice. Despite this, though, his campaign website is rather short on details, completely lacking any policy positions. It’s the campaign website of somebody who believes himself a frontrunner. Which is excusable if you’re the clear frontrunner, except the polls haven’t yet borne that out.

Warnock is also going through a divorce, one that has resulted in some allegations that are less than ideal. Even still, unless more comes out about that or his policy positions ultimately do not reflect his message from the pulpit, Warnock is likely a reasonable choice.

My personal favorite is Richard Dien Winfield, who has staked out a number of ambitious and commendable lefty positions on his website. He ran for Congress in 2018 and came in third in a three-way primary, so it’s unlikely that Winfield gains any traction. (In fact, he’s in seventh place in that poll, behind a third Republican.) I do believe that running more Richard Winfields is key to making these ambitious proposals a reality eventually, but I also do think that there are plenty of other races where lefty contributions will go further. (I may still toss Winfield a couple dollars.)

Third is Ed Tarver. Tarver seems…fine. Despite being a former U.S. Attorney, he wants to work on criminal justice reform. But he also makes “fiscal responsibility” one of his four major platform planks, and I don’t see almost any way in which he’s a better driver of turnout than Warnock.

Finally, we have Matt Lieberman. As in, yes, he’s Joe Lieberman’s son. Lieberman supports a public option and limits his gun control platform to universal background checks, which gives me no reason to take a second look at him.

Frankly, with the limited polling we have so far, Lieberman is the candidate sucking the oxygen out of the room. He’s generally the one leading the Democratic pack in the polls, perhaps due to name recognition, and there’s no compelling argument for him as far as I can tell. While I also think that Tarver is likely to the right of Warnock, I think it’s most important at this time to send Lieberman signals that he should drop out of the race so as to avoid a lockout.

This would be an easier pitch if Warnock would endorse a platform. But I think that efforts made on behalf of any of the other candidates would be useful. It’s very possible that we wake up on November 4, 2020, and the Democrats have won the presidency and 49 Senate seats. We need to make sure that we have this race in our back pocket, especially given how close Stacey Abrams came in 2018.

Now, there is another November blanket primary that could lead to a runoff. Louisiana has one scheduled for Bill Cassidy’s reelection. And perhaps that is another opportunity for Democrats if we end up one seat short. But recall that in 2016, we were able to focus the entire country’s energies on the Louisiana senate runoff between John Neely Kennedy and Foster Campbell. Despite Campbell raising $2.5 million in just two weeks, he still lost to Kennedy by 21 points in the runoff. (Cassidy, as an incumbent, may be able to get 50% outright on November 3 anyway, avoiding the runoff entirely.)

And even if the number isn’t 49, an additional Senate seat is always hugely valuable. Going from 50 to 51, for example, means that for two years, we don’t have to worry about counting on Joe Manchin’s vote. From 51 to 52, Kyrsten Sinema.

Collins and Loeffler have demonstrated that they’re willing to carry water for the ghoulish aspects of their party. And while we cannot force the field to consolidate, we can show the campaigns that we’re coalescing around some and not others.

On a more fundamental level, this is the evil of blanket primaries. It forces minority parties to make necessary but unsavory decisions in order to even be competitive. We should, at minimum, have a proper primary to allow these four candidates to campaign heartily without having to worry about jeopardizing the seat entirely.

Or, perhaps even better, we should institute ranked-choice voting so that even in a blanket-primary setting, these tactical considerations disappear.

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