When Robert “Fighting Bob” LaFollette pushed for the creation of an open-primary system in Wisconsin, his intent was to weaken the power of political party bosses beholden to special interests, like the railroad barrons. A central tenet of the progressive movement, opening up the primaries allowed independent, progressive activists to advance their political causes.
In its purest form, an open-primary system means that anyone can vote in any primary, and anyone can run in any primary.
Wisconsin has arguably the most open primaries in the United States, of the 17 states that currently follow that system. Open primaries aren’t just part of a political system in the Badger State; they’re part of a Wisconsin tradition. It’s the kind of tradition that allowed marijuana rights activist Ben Masel to bring attention to his cause through campaigns for governor and for the U.S. Senate seat held by Herb Kohl.
That tradition is about to face its greatest challenge.
Top Wisconsin Republicans -- the head of the state party and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald -- have publicly announced their plans to run spoiler candidates in Democratic primaries.
Stephan Thompson, executive director of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, said in a statement that the party advocates the practice to push back the recall election schedule “to ensure that Republican legislators have ample time to communicate with voters throughout their districts after the state budget is approved.”
Fitzgerald has echoed those reasons in his support, despite some apparent objection from candidates such as Rep. Dan Kapanke and Rep. Randy Hopper who denied any involvement in the spoiler efforts even though Fitzgerald claimed to have briefed all Republican candidates on the strategy.
False Flag Operation?
During the Wisconsin protests against Walker's collective bargaining bill, Walker received an email from a Republican activist and Indiana prosecutor urging him to employ a "false flag operation" -- to pretend that he was injured or attacked by a "union thug" -- to discredit the unions. The prosecutor lost his job for recommending such a partisan stunt, but the Wisconsin GOP has apparently not learned its lesson.
“To run a sort of fake candidate, a puppet candidate, just to cause a primary to delay an election by a month. I’ve never seen that done,” said Barry Burden, a campaigns and elections expert and political science professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Burden explained that open primaries not only allow flexibility for candidates, but also for voters, who can vote in primaries regardless of party affiliation.
“I think politics in Wisconsin is salient enough right now and there’s enough energy around these recall elections and the law is permissive … I would not be surprised to see a fair amount of this crossover voting going on,” Burden said.
Taking the High Road
While Wisconsin voters may cross over and vote in another party's primary, Wisconsin Democrats have decided to take the high road and run real candidates for real offices. Wisconsin Democrats announced they will not run fake candidates in Republican primaries, despite encouragement from the We Are Wisconsin PAC to do just that.
"We cannot and will not stoop to the Republicans' level by encouraging candidates to lie about their party affiliation, or recommending that people try to deceive voters. We never have done that, and won’t start now. This is something that every single one of our six challengers has said they adamantly oppose,” said Democratic Party of Wisconsin Chairman Mike Tate in a statement.
Tate explained that the party will force primaries in the six recalls of Republican senators by running two Democratic candidates, one of whom will be a “placeholder.” This would not only bring consistency and predictability to the election schedule, but it would give the Democrats greater control of their ballot line.
Government Accountability Board (GAB) spokesman Reid Magney said there is nothing illegal that the GAB is aware of regarding protest candidates.
While legality may not be an issue, this Republican-driven strategy is completely at odds with the Wisconsin tradition that supports it. Open primaries were established as a progressive effort to weaken the power of political parties. Never before has a party attempted to manipulate that system in such an organized fashion.
Weapons of Mass Deception?
“We’ve always had exceptionally open politics, and now that’s being taken advantage of,” said John Nichols, associate editor of the Capital Times and Washington correspondent for The Nation.
Nichols compared the strategy to the development of a new weapon. Once one side develops a weapon, the other will use it. This could lead to a political environment in which “nuisance candidates” are a common occurrence.
This kind of political climate is nothing but confusing for voters, who are already subjected to the confusing process of recall elections.
For that confusion to come directly from an organized political party is completely inappropriate, Nichols said, adding that it leads to a “heightened level of confusion that’s bad for democracy.”