- The Political Party insiders, Republican or Democrat, are not who you would expect.
- It is not the so-called donor class that makes endorsement decisions, it is the political operatives that get activists to the caucuses and conventions.
- Anyone who goes inside a convention as an official, a delegate, or an “alternate” is an insider. If you are inside a convention or caucus you are by definition a political insider.
- Party mechanisms exist to support the best candidate and use their resources to make that case to the primary voters, not to rig the system and deprive primary voters of their full array of choices. The bullying of candidates to “respect the endorsement” by political insiders is anti-democratic and needs to stop.
In the spring of 2014, I entered the Mayo Civic Center in Rochester, MN to speak at the Minnesota Republican Party Endorsing Convention. I had never been to a statewide endorsing convention. What I expected to find and what I found were very different things. As a political novice, I expected civility and respect between the different camps supporting various gubernatorial and senatorial candidates. It is difficult to use words to express the totality of the animosity, rumormongering, bullying, and put-downs that were pervasive. There were overly excited grassroots activists who were blinded by the sole focus of their candidate winning the endorsement on one end of the spectrum, and there were paid political operatives that had all but promised their candidate the endorsement engaging in what I can only describe as junior high smear tactics on the other end of the spectrum. There were plenty of folks in the middle who were honestly there to support their chosen candidate, but they were dwarfed by the words and deeds of the agitators, paid or otherwise.
I had heard of the political “swamp”, but that weekend I found it. There was even one candidate for U.S. Senate, Phillip Parrish who is now running for governor, that made an impassioned speech about the oath he took to the Constitution, only then later he demanded that whoever did not get the endorsement drop out of the race. The Constitution never mentioned political parties, let alone a mechanism where a small group would claim such power and wield it in their own interests. I was taken aback by the contradiction. Someone who espoused Constitutional values demanding that the endorsement process be used to force candidates to drop out of the race, thus depriving primary voters of the full array of potential choices. This is the embodiment of the very factionalism our founding fathers warned us specifically against. If one feels emboldened in depriving his fellow citizens of potential choices in primary elections, that person should revisit his oath. There is nothing in keeping with any of our founding documents that advocates for party insiders limiting our political choices.
The delegates to the endorsing convention that weekend made up less than one percent of the primary voters. A good number of that tiny minority of voters were good people, however, there was some pettiness and ugliness on display. The hypocrisy was thick as well. Some activists insisted that competing candidates should drop out if not endorsed and rationalized why it would be ok if their chosen candidate stayed in. There was also the constant railing against “party insiders.” The attacks against insiders were the most breathtaking of the hypocrisy. Those inside the convention were both literally and figuratively the insiders, they were inside the convention and had exclusive credentials that allowed them entry that was denied to others.
Regardless of the conflict, bitterness, and division, endorsements were given. I felt sorry for the then-Chairman of the Minnesota Republican Party, Keith Downey as he delivered the rote declaration during adjournment that “steel sharpens steel” and “we came to Rochester divided and we leave this convention united.” Keith Downey was witnessing the same thing I was, yet it was his job to say those words. The Republican Party in 2014 was anything but unified. The majority of those activists whose candidates either dropped out or were defeated in the primary were not active politically for the rest of the election cycle. It was sad to see so many talented activists take their proverbial ball and go home.
This is not unique to Republicans. Several weeks ago, I watched Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District Democrats (DFL) host a very similar endorsing convention. The presiding official of the convention asked each of the five candidates seeking the endorsement if they would bend to the will of the small group of party insiders that were assembled there that day, or simply put, would they “abide” by the endorsement. It was a divisive convention filled with a different flavor of the same ugliness. Like the Republicans, they tried to play king maker and thus set themselves up for failure. No endorsement was issued. The convention was divided, and those divisions will haunt them to Election Day. The hypocrisy of the Democrats wasn’t a philosophical one where they wrapped themselves in the words of our Constitution, only to display an ignorance or misunderstanding. The hypocrisy of the Democrats was much more practical. The 8th District DFL presiding official pressured and bullied the Democrat candidates into accepting the will of the assembled insiders by putting them on the spot while they were at the podium. It seems innocuous until you realize that Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District’s former U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, the longest serving Democrat from Minnesota, ignored his party’s endorsement of Tony Perpich and went on to win the primary in 1974. For 34 years no one in the Democrat party complained that Oberstar defied the will of his party’s insiders, instead Rep. Oberstar submitted himself to the judgment of the primary and general election voters. Also, Minnesota’s 8th District Democrats ignored the fact that the sitting Democrat Governor Mark Dayton chose to bypass his party’s primary. Both Minnesota Republican and Democrat institutions are guilty of intellectual inconsistency, dishonesty, and conspiracy to deprive their primary voters of choice through the mechanisms of insider politics.
It is time we recognize the endorsement system is broken for both political parties and is causing fissures in the entirety of our political system. Political machines designed to dictate to the voters who their choices should be is immoral and obsolete. The purpose of endorsing conventions is not to manipulate outcomes, but rather to decide who to put volunteers and financial resources behind to make their case to the primary voter. It is not to dictate to the primary voter. If the political party lacks either the financial resources or the volunteers to make that case to the primary voters one must ask what is the worth of that endorsement, and what type of person would actively seek an endorsement under those circumstances. I have met some very outstanding people through my political travels, but I have also met those that are divisive and seek to manipulate the system for their own purposes. The current composition of political parties is obsolete. For politics to evolve beyond the manipulators, insiders, and self-appointed “king makers” the state of Minnesota needs to abandon the endorsement process and adopt an early primary. The earlier the better.