Five Reasons Progressive Harris County Democrats Should Avoid the Republican Primary Like the Plague
by Daniel Cohen, President of Indivisible Houston
The opinions expressed in this article are solely the pervue of Mr. Daniel Cohen. His statements do not necessarily reflects the tenets of Indivisible Houston. Daniel is execising his first amendment right as an independent citizen.
Over the last year, I have gone from a voter who occasionally engages others in civic conversation over political issues to a Democratic Party Precinct Chair who organizes weekly to beat back the creeping wave of authoritarian conservatism at the local, state, and national levels. During that time, I have noticed a trend in conversations within activist circles. First, an idea is presented and people recommend we all do something about it. Then, people stop talking about the idea and start acting on it. Finally, it becomes ingrained as a strategy for the activist community.
The most recent idea that stands out to me as a focal point of discussion is the dilemma surrounding Harris County primaries. Namely, the question is whether or not to vote strategically in the Republican Primary as opposed to the Democratic Primary in order to move the Republican Party into a more moderate position.
My plea to fellow progressive Democrats: DON’T.
1. It doesn’t work.
I have fallen prey before to the idea of voting in the Republican Primary in order to affect the outcome of an election. I’ve known people who did it before me, and there were people who did it before that.
In 2000, several Texans I knew at the time voted for John McCain in the Republican primary because they didn’t mind Al Gore or Bill Bradley but despised the idea of George W. Bush becoming President.
Bush still won.
Last year, at least a handful of hardcore Harris County Democrats voted for Donald Trump in the Republican primary to set up an “easier target” for the Democrats at the presidential level. Still, others voted for Kasich or Cruz to get a more palatable choice in as the nominee.
Nobody got their way.
2. It hurts general election fundraising.
Fundraising depends largely on finding donors who believe in what a candidate stands for and has a good shot at winning an election. No donor wants to back a loser; if you are totally reliant on sympathy bucks from Cousin Ned and your coworkers, you’re going to tap out your donor pool awful fast. You have to be able to expand your circle and use your phone time to find organizations and individuals who will back you because of what you believe in and your perceived viability (regardless of the accuracy of that perception).One of the metrics used to assess viability is how many votes a given candidate received in an election. And when it comes to fundraising for the general election, the vote total donors often look to is the tally in the primary. That’s why when you see a candidate you support who doesn’t have a primary opponent, you should still check the ballot next to their name because it can improve their perceived viability by increasing their overall vote total.
By voting in the Republican Primary, you rob those candidates of a vote, thereby hurting their chances of raising funds and winning the general election. This is particularly true when it comes to bipartisan donors (though it affects the decisions of progressive donors as well). In that way, voting in the Republican Primary results in more Republican fundraising, and more Republicans in office after the general election.
3. It robs us of progressive officeholders and allows rats into the party.
The Democratic Primary is where we fight over the soul of our party. The only way to get congressional representatives who believe in single-payer healthcare, a clean DREAM Act, protections against corporate greed, real education programs, and other progressive policy principles is by first getting them into the general election fight. And the only way to get them into the general election is to vote for them in the Democratic Primary.
I have often heard two opposing statements uttered recently in the county by long-time Democrats- neither of which are true- that challenge the importance of the Democratic primary. One is that “the real election takes place in the primary”. That may be true in some dark crimson corner of the panhandle. But in Harris County? Expect a general election fight for almost every seat.
The other is “the general election is the real election”. This is also a bridge too far. The outcome of the primaries matters significantly in the ideological outcomes of governance. For example, in state house 134, Allison Sawyer and Lloyd Oliver are facing off in the Democratic primary this year. Sawyer has fairly mainstream Democratic Party positions on most issues. Oliver, on the other hand, is a domestic abuse apologist and “Tea Party Democrat” who calls Muslims ragheads and has a history of homophobia. Skipping the Democratic Primary in favor of the Republican one means taking a pass on the Sawyer-Oliver primary, leaving us vulnerable to having Oliver as our general election candidate and a possible statehouse rep.
Sound far-fetched? Consider this: Oliver has already won a past Democratic Primary on name recognition in 2012, when he was the county party’s nominee for DA after beating young, likable, well-funded party favorite Zack Fertitta by a little less than three thousand votes (roughly 52% to 48%). Democratic precinct chairs were pledged to support Oliver, a man who may as well be Donald Trump at the local level.
Voting in the Democratic Primaries helps keep racists out of the party AND out of office.
4. It hurts the long-term ground game strategy of the party.
Ground game can make a measurable difference in the electoral outcome of 3-5%. It also has an impact far beyond that measurement thanks to word-of-mouth and the ability of candidates to learn and adapt to voters based on the feedback they receive from knocking on doors, and improving their pitch, etc.
As any good precinct chair knows, all the data you receive from canvassing goes back into the party database known as VAN (Voter Access Network). VAN allows the party to track long-term electoral habits of individual voters and make a real difference in how it approaches specific elections. If someone has voted in 10 Democratic Primaries in a row, that helps categorize them as a strong Democratic voter. If they have voted in Republican primaries several years in a row, they may be classified as a conservative voter (and so on).
Especially during low turnout elections, the ability to find strong Democratic voters- even if they don’t come out for every election- hinges largely on the accuracy of VAN statistics. Voting in Republican primaries makes you harder to find for candidates and also changes how campaign managers look at macro numbers related to your precinct; the less Democratic primary voters in the area, the less effort should be made on paper. And since the candidates don’t know you beyond your voting profile, they may not target you at all.
As we learned in the Indivisible Houston meeting on the ground game from strategist Tarah Taylor, groups like TOP target low propensity party voters, while campaigns target high propensity party voters. The more people who jump ship from the Democratic Primary, the less of that targeting takes place and the worse our campaigns do, thus resulting in less Democratic officeholders and worse information for the future of the party.
Alabama was a great example of the difficulty that can come with inaccurate VAN totals. Local activists and the party used the NAACP database to cross-reference low propensity voters with the presumption that many members would vote for Doug Jones over Roy Moore. Thank the political gods the NAACP’s database was available! It would have been much easier if the state party had the resources and precinct chairs to keep the state VAN database up to date though. The database would have positive long-term impacts on electoral outcomes and strategy.
5. It sells out the left flank.
Elections are warlike. They pit, people and organizations against one another in ideological strife. They also stress test coalitions and determine who will hang together so we do not, in the words of Ben Franklin, “most assuredly hang separately”.
In 2016, progressive Democratic precinct chairs such as my good friend Egberto Willies took flack from people similar to them on the ideological spectrum for going to bat for Clinton in an effort to avoid Donald Trump becoming president. The coalition splintered; a chunk of Sanders voters stayed home, voted third party, or even voted for Trump.
It is easy for the more mainstream Democratic voter to point the finger at those voters and point out that their lack of party loyalty led to a worse outcome for all of us. The criticism has some validity.
But that critique becomes entirely hypocritical as soon as the left center/moderate wing of the Democratic Party jumps ship to vote for Republicans, even in a primary (and especially in the general election). The goal of progressives is not to help elect Sarah Davis and Ed Emmett, two well-known public figures who serve as a local carrying source for other Republicans to slide into office. The goal of progressives is to change the values that govern our world.
Centrists may disagree with that as an end goal and prefer to generally get Democratic candidates in office in an effort to move the country toward a more centrist or left-center approach to governance. As you can probably guess, we progressives roll our eyes a little at that. We don’t want a continuation of the Democratic Leadership Council. We may now want to lose with a Mondale-like figure, but we also don’t want to look the other way on corporate control and criminal justice while politicians stay in power for decades at a time. It rubs a lot of us wrong.
Yet when the general election comes around, a good chunk of us will hold our noses and pull the lever for centrist Democrats, knowing we are at least protecting reproductive choice and the environment, and that we can pressure and protest these Democratic representatives into more progressive positions at a later date. Like the party loyal centrists who would have voted Bernie if he had won the primary, we realize the gravity of the situation and will consider putting clothespins to nostrils and fight in the primaries instead. We aren’t happy about it. But we’ll do it.
But if the center crosses over the Republican Primary, it inadvertently begins to test the coalition and stresses solidarity with the base of the party, the left flank that would prefer our candidates die on a hill than ever let authoritarian conservatism take power in Harris County ever again. Progressives see the dire need to flip the Texas legislature and County Commissioners Court as quickly as possible into Democratic hands and know that a moderate Republican is often moderate so they can secure the center, but will eventually vote for policies and legislative leaders who are hard right. Even Joe Strauss- worshipped killer of bathroom bills- is a fairly conservative person and one we would be happy to have replaced with a Democratic officeholder.
The Harris County Democratic Party’s job is to build a lasting coalition of Democratic voters. To keep the progressive voters in the fold, they have to promote a party that promulgates a progressive worldview. Voting in the Republican Primary or supporting Republican candidates is a good way for longtime, highly involved centrist Dems to destroy solidarity. It’s the centrists’ way of telling progressives (particularly millennials) to “do as I say, not as I do”, and the left flank will rightfully find offense in that.
In sympathy, I will say: the motive for centrists to cross over is not always actual support for the right-center (though that is more common than I would like). Sometimes it’s done out of fear. Greg Abbott’s attack on Sarah Davis is a dog whistle to the center to protect their officeholder against the governor’s wish to expand the hard right’s reign of terror, and some moderates are gravitating toward vocal and electoral support for Davis out of fear of the agenda of Abbott and Dan Patrick.
Those days must end. We must all stop living in fear and fight back. For all of the complaints, any Democratic Party member at the local level may have of the local party, their shot at building solidarity and launching a strong campaign shouldn’t be destroyed by Democrats voting in GOP races. If Sarah Davis goes down in a primary, so be it; we wanted a Democratic representative anyway, and we’ll cross that bridge in the general after we have vanquished Lloyd Oliver.
In other words: We’re at war here. Remember who your friends are.