OLYMPIA — Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan will be on Washington’s presidential ballot this fall because the Republican Party meets the rules for being a major party in the state, a Thurston County Superior Court judge ruled this morning.
Judge Thomas McPhee denied a request by the state Libertarian Party to keep Romney’s name off the ballot, which argued Republicans hadn’t complied with rules for nominating Dino Rossi as the official GOP nominee in the 2010 Senate race during their state convention that year.
Republicans were split between Rossi and Clint Didier, who was popular with Tea Party elements of the GOP, and didn’t get a chance to nominate either at their convention. When Rossi qualified for the general election in the Top 2 primary, the party’s State Central Committee endorsed him and all other Republican candidates who made it through the primary.
Political parties have control over selecting the candidates they will support, McPhee said in denying the motion to keep Romney’s name off the ballot. The state also has a valid argument that Republicans are a major party based on the results of the 2008 presidential election, he added.
The decision won’t be appealed, J. Mills, an attorney for the Libertarian Party, said. But it could make minor parties change their strategy for 2016… .
The state GOP and the Romney campaign might pursue a claim against Mills for attorneys fees under state court rules for bringing a frivolous lawsuit, Rob Maguire, an attorney for the Republican Party, said.
The challenge revolved around the distinction Washington makes between major and minor parties. Major party presidential candidates automatically go on the fall ballot after winning their party’s nominating process. Minor parties must gather 1,000 signatures and submit them to the secretary of state’s office to get their candidates on the ballot.
Currently in Washington, only the Democratic and Republican parties are major parties. The Libertarian, Green, Constitution and Socialist Workers parties are among the minor parties that have qualified their presidential candidates for the ballot through signatures.
The distinction predates the current Top 2 primary system in which the two candidates with the most votes in the primary for state and local partisan offices advance to the general election regardless of party. Under the old system, the top vote-getter of a major party in a state or local primary advanced to the general election but a minor party candidate had to meet a certain threshold for votes in the primary to appear on the November ballot.
To be a major party under that system, at least one of a party’s candidates for statewide office had to receive at least 5 percent of the vote in the previous general election.
Technically, candidates for state offices that are partisan now only state their party “preference”, the party is under no obligation to endorse or even acknowledge them; no party is guaranteed a spot in the general election. But the distinction between major and minor parties remains in statute, and comes into play in what state elections officials argue is the only true partisan race in Washington, the presidential contest.
Mills had argued that because Rossi did not receive the GOP nomination at a public forum like the state convention in 2010, he wasn’t technically a Republican candidate. The state Central Committee’s endorsement didn’t come at a convention, or even a public meeting, so that shouldn’t count. Because that was the only statewide election for partisan office in 2010, the Republicans didn’t get at least 5 percent in the last election and slipped into minor party status. Because they didn’t submit signatures to put Romney on the ballot by this month’s deadline, his name couldn’t be printed on the ballot.
“Do we all play by the same rules or when the Republicans come in do they just get a different deal?” Mills asked McPhee.
Romney could run as a write-in, and what’s the harm, he added: “Washington is a reliably blue state… Mr. Romney or any Republican will not win Washington’s 12 electors any way.”
Or if he did, a Romney victory would be such a landslide nationally that Washington’s electoral votes won’t mean the difference between him winning or losing, Mills added.
“I can assure you my decision will not be made on those grounds,” McPhee said. Instead, the key issue was that Republicans, through their state Central Committee, nominated Rossi after the 2010 primary, the judge said. The nominating process and power is left to the party. It’s not controlled by statute, regulation or the Legislature.
He also said an argument by the state attorney general’s office that Republicans were a major party based on John McCain’s showing in the 2008 presidential election — which was submitted in briefs but didn’t even have to be discussed in the hearing — was persuasive.
Mills said he wouldn’t appeal McPhee’s ruling, although he said Libertarians and other minor parties might now hold their own secret meetings, nominate Barack Obama or Romney, or a statewide candidate who is on this year’s general election ballot, and claim major party status in the 2016 presidential election.
Even though the state Republican Party prevailed this morning, Maguire said the Romney campaign may pursue sanctions and attorneys fees against Mills for bringing a suit it considers frivolous. “They take any kind of action in a presidential race seriously,” he said.