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Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Senate Nominations

In our chapters on political parties and elections, we discuss ways in which parties nominate candidates for office.  At The Atlantic, Charles Cook writes:
Tennessee state Sen. Frank Nicely, a Republican from Strawberry Plains, has introduced S.B. 471, which would, beginning in 2016, eliminate party primaries for the U.S. Senate in Tennessee. Members of the state Legislature would instead select the nominees. Republican House and Senate caucuses would pick the GOP nominee, and their Democratic counterparts would select their candidate. State Rep. Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville, has also introduced the bill in the Tennessee General Assembly.

My first reaction was to be dismissive. In Washington, as in state legislatures around the country, we often see goofy bills and resolutions introduced, but most thankfully die without any action being taken. But what really got my attention was the news that the Tennessee Senate's State and Local Government Committee voted 7-1 last week to advance the bill. And, no, this isn't an April Fool's joke.

My second reaction was, why stop there? Why not just repeal the 17th Amendment to the Constitution and go back to the way things were before 1913 when voters had no say at all, and state legislatures elected U.S. senators? The 17th Amendment calls for the popular election of U.S. senators but is silent on nominations; indeed, the Constitution is silent on the whole issue of political parties.

As a result, states pretty much have a free hand in determining how nominees are selected. Utah has a two-step process whereby a candidate must clear a 60 percent threshold in the state convention to avoid a statewide primary election; if no candidate receives 60 percent of the vote, the top two candidates move on to a primary. In 2010, this process resulted in incumbent Republican Robert Bennett, one of the ablest U.S. senators to serve in a long time, not even making it onto a primary ballot. By most counts, Bennett would have easily won a primary, but in a Tea Party-packed convention process, he came up short -- his vote in favor of the Troubled Asset Relief Program was his biggest sin.

Virginia has an odd system in which the parties decide whether the state holds a convention or a primary each election cycle. Neither Utah nor Virginia has a process that should be emulated; indeed, with cynicism about government increasing, is this really a good time to cut voters out of the process? Why let state legislators choose who should be the Senate nominee?
Actually, there is serious criticism of the 17th Amendment. Citing concerns for federalism, some thoughtful writers have suggested repeal.

See here for an excellent book on the topic.