OLYMPIA – Washington’s presidential primary has a long and checkered history over its 30-year life span.
Sometimes it has drawn attention from relatively few candidates, other times from many. Sometimes it has been primarily a “beauty contest” because the parties have ignored the results. Sometimes it has been canceled as a waste of money.
Even when it has garnered attention from national candidates, it has never been the way that both major parties select their presidential nominee. Republicans have given its results different weight in different years.
Democrats have never used the results of a Washington presidential primary to apportion delegates to their national convention, and have stuck with the precinct caucus system. Their leadership for decades has sung the praises of caucuses as good for boosting party participation, even though participation in caucuses is a fraction of a primary.
What caucuses are good for, however, is attracting foot soldiers and money. Anyone willing to spend hours in a room arguing the finer points of political issues can usually be hit up to work on campaigns and donate money.
Legislators have struggled with a “fix” to the Washington presidential primary for years, and this year majority Democrats thought they had a good two-parter. They would move the primary from late May, when the nomination process is all but over and the eventual winner is known, to early March, when many candidates are still in play. Republicans generally said “Go for it.”
They would also require voters – who haven’t registered by party in Washington since 1934, and even then not uniformly – to mark the ballot to indicate they affiliate with the party of the candidate for whom they are voting.
Republicans said “No way,” citing voters’ longtime populist streak and aversion to public affiliation with a party.
Without that affiliation identification, however, the Democratic National Committee is unlikely to allow Washington Democrats to use the results. In the past it has even punished candidates who campaign in states with unsanctioned primaries. That’s why Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders came to Washington before the March caucuses, but not before the May primary, even though Sanders was still in the race.
The legislative debate went back and forth in both the House and Senate between independence for voters who don’t want an R or D connected to their name and the relevance of the results for voters who do – or at least don’t care enough to boycott the election.
Democrats control both chambers, so the presidential primary bill passed and was sent to the governor.
Just days later that, the Washington Democratic Party announced it is conducting a monthlong survey of members to determine whether it should use caucuses or the primary results to award delegates.
Wait, what? Legislative Democrats agreed to vote for a controversial bill – one guaranteed to tick off a chunk of their constituents who don’t want to tell anyone what party they support AND will cost the state $12 million next year – on the basis of creating primary results that mean something. And their state party announces “maybe we’ll use those results, maybe we won’t.”
“I was peeved,” Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, the bill’s sponsor. (Actually, Hunt used another “p” word, but this is a family newspaper.)
Gov. Jay Inslee, who arguably stands to benefit most from a Washington presidential primary if he’s still in the race by then, was somewhat wishy-washy about the whole thing. He didn’t push for the bill, but has no problem with signing it, he said.
“It’s irrelevant to my plans,” he said. The state’s highest-ranking elected Democrat sidestepped any involvement in his party’s internal politics and possible fight between caucus and primary supporters. He said he has no “particular thoughts” about taking a position on that one.
Hunt said he thinks Democrats will eventually opt for the primary, based on reaction he’s received. But if they don’t, he has a particular thought on what to do in 2020: Cancel the whole thing and save the money. With Donald Trump running for re-election, all Republican delegates are likely going to him, so the GOP might not care which process they use.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.