Open primaries may be the only way to save the Maine GOP

The Republican Party in Maine is in rough shape. Democrats last fall swept elections across the state, solidifying their majority in the House, winning control of the Senate, winning the governor’s race, and knocking off an incumbent congressman in our 2nd Congressional District for the first time in more than 100 years. On the heels of one of the worst election years ever for the GOP in Maine, the state party opted to keep its leadership team in place, ensuring the cycle of entropy will continue.

The reason the Maine GOP continues to deteriorate is because, as a body, it has failed to grasp a simple political concept — that the goal is to convince people you’re right, not whittle your organization down to only the true believers. Politics is a game of addition, not subtraction.

The state party now is caught in a death spiral. Its aggressive public policy stances put it institutionally at odds with Mainers from all walks of life, and this has resulted in a shrinking tent that will eventually contain too few members to be competitive in statewide races.

Voters wait in line in the gymnasium of Brunswick Junior High School on Nov. 2 to receive ballots to vote in the mid-term election. Tens of thousands more Maine Democrats voted in the 2018 election than did Republicans amid a burst in turnout among Democrats energized by opposition to President Donald Trump.(AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)

The Maine Republican Party regularly takes extreme positions that alienate even middle-of-the-road Republicans. Despite the large swath of pro-choice Republicans in Maine, including many elected officials, the party promotes and participates in pro-life rallies. Despite the many Republicans who support some type of reasonable gun control legislation, party officials give speeches calling them “radicals” and positioning the party at the extreme fringe of the pro-gun movement.

There is a way to stop this death spiral: open primaries. An open primary system, which allows anyone from any party to participate in Democrat or Republican primaries, would go a long way toward keeping the shrinking GOP base from picking unelectable people as their candidates.

Because of Maine’s three-way registration split between Democrat, Republican, and independent voters, a candidate must win significant support from voters outside of their own party to receive a majority of votes statewide. A candidate who appeals only to their base party without attracting cross-party support cannot win without some type of lucky split. And a GOP legislative slate that only appeals to far-right orthodoxy will be relegated to a only a small handful of Republican-majority districts.

But, left to its own devices, the Maine GOP apparatus would rather sit alone in ideological purity than win elections. They will not, by their own accord, adopt tactics that would win over non-Republicans.

By allowing independents and Democrats to participate in GOP primaries, the Republican Party would be forced into doing something for its own good — nominating someone with appeal beyond the base.

It’s twisted logic, to be sure. But the Maine GOP has become so toxic to anyone but its own members that some type of intervention like this has to happen for it to survive. If the party continues down the path of alienation and right-wing extremism, more and more moderate Maine voters will steer clear of the GOP and their candidates.

Of course, open primaries would not change the party apparatus overnight. But having candidates with some ideological diversity and a focus on appealing to a majority of the electorate would be a dramatic image makeover for the party. Normal people who aren’t Republican might start reconsidering their biases, and over time conservative policies might stand a chance again in our state.

Open primaries are logically … weird. I don’t think they make a lot of sense outside of the scope of emergency intervention. But our politics in general have gotten so warped and base-driven that we desperately need some structural means to get democratic power back in the hands of the majority of voters who do not reside at the fringes. A successful political movement needs to grow, not shrink, and the Maine Republican Party needs to adapt by either choice or structure if it’s going to be competitive in the future.


Lance Dutson

About Lance Dutson

Lance Dutson, a principal of Red Hill Strategies, is a Republican communications consultant. He has served on the campaign teams of U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Kelly Ayotte, as well as the Maine Republican Party.