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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: GOP can’t quite close door

by John Brummett | December 6, 2022 at 4:47 a.m.

The state Republican Committee narrowly failed on Saturday to pass a measure calling for only card-carrying Republicans to pick all officeholders in the state except in Pulaski, Washington and a few Delta counties.

The required suspension of rules to take up the matter necessitated a two-thirds majority vote that was not quite achieved. There was talk of the party committee bringing the issue back next time after more study or of going straight to the Legislature, meaning largely to itself but with direct lawmaking authority.

Closed primaries are not uncommon among states. It's not unreasonable for a political party to want to be in charge of its own nominations, spared infiltration by someone like me--a cussed independent and left-leaner--asking for and getting an "R" ballot.

I did that in May and marked the ballot for Doc Washburn over Sarah Sanders for governor.

I calculated that no vote could be nobler than against Sanders. I figured Washburn was sincere in zany extremism rather than cynically tactical. In a choice between an actual nut and a pretend nut for my next governor--and the next governor would only come from the Republican primary--I chose authenticity as my tiebreaker.

Most of the Republican objections voiced Saturday to open primaries had nothing to do with outsiders who come in to vote against the least-authentic deplorable. Instead it was about supposed liberals venturing into the GOP primary to vote for what these Republicans called the most liberal choice, but which actually was the least-extreme conservative.

That's actually one of the major goals of Republican-resigned Jim Hendren with his new Common Ground organization. The group encourages voting in the Republican primary when it's tantamount to election, but for the most center-inclined, bipartisan and problem-solving candidate.

That tactic appeared to bear no fruit in the recent primary. But many Republicans want to stomp the notion flat anyway.

Most states that have party primaries restricted to registered members offer vibrant competition between those parties. They also tend to have independents who have made decisions to register as independents knowing they are forgoing voting in either party primary.

Arkansas is not like that or anyone else.

For decades it had open primaries that Democrats so controlled that their nominations were accepted as tantamount to election.

But "Democrats" in those days were merely nominal and not organized in any partisan way. Democratic primary voters were independents.

One time the Democrats elected as their state party chairman a young fellow who promptly revealed that of course he had voted for Nixon over McGovern. He'd vote for a "D" locally, because everyone did, but president of the United States was important. Do you mean to say he couldn't be state Democratic chairman if he wasn't really a Democrat? Why, who ever heard of such a communist notion?

Now Arkansas is overwhelmingly Republican and its primaries are the ones tantamount to statewide election. But the people of the state now think more about parties. They are a little more than a third Republican, about a third independent, and less than a third Democratic.

Republicans are winning big because the independent third is conservative and leans heavily to it. But only about 7 percent of registered voters are actually registered as Republicans. About 87 percent don't register by party at all.

The point is that, if you want to have a say in selecting statewide officers, you must vote in the Republican primary, because the Democrat in November--any Democrat in November--won't stand a chance.

The rule change many Republicans are seeking would mean that only registered Republicans could vote in their primaries. They think that would grow their registration rolls but keep out the so-called RINOs, meaning Republicans in Name Only, or people like me--if there are any--who are viewed as mischief-makers rather than as the authenticity-seekers they are.

It could happen that Republican registration rolls would explode. But it also could happen that conservative independents in Arkansas so value their independence that they would resent coercion, and would simply skip any primary of a group that tried to make them join it.

They might see the Republican behavior for what it is--arrogance and greed.

None of that should present any big problem for Republicans. They'd still win everything either way. They would do so either with the voluntary coalition they already have or their own small clique, made more snug, smug and powerful than ever.

I can't quite envision a conservative independent in Arkansas getting so mad about being told he must join the Republican Party to vote in the primary in May that he would go out and vote for Joe Biden in November.

It's a long time--and a lot of Fox and Newsmax viewing--from May to November.


John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.


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