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The party isn’t dead

Party leaders and activists are growing increasingly active in steering nomination contests in House and Senate races.

Dianne Feinstein Getty Images

The events of the 2016 election left some observers wondering if parties still had much control over their own nominations. Recent events within various congressional contests, however, should answer such questions pretty definitively. Party leaders and activists are asserting control in many nomination contests, actively shaping the choices that voters will get in the 2018 primaries.

One of the more striking recent developments within state parties was a move by Utah Republicans to modify their nomination rules. Utah’s GOP has two paths to the nomination — either by winning the support of delegates at the party convention or by gathering enough signatures to petition onto the primary ballot. The state GOP recently changed those rules such that candidates going the signature-gathering route would be kicked out of the party. This was likely targeted at Mitt Romney, now seeking a US Senate seat and pursuing both the convention and signature paths simultaneously, but was amended to just apply to US House candidates.

Meanwhile, over in California, state Democrats declined to endorse Dianne Feinstein for another term in the US Senate at their convention. Party convention rules there require 60 percent of delegates for a party endorsement. Those endorsements are pretty valuable, worth roughly 5 to 10 percent of a vote boost in the primary. But a strong challenge from state Senate leader Kevin de León limited Feinstein to just 37 percent support at the convention.

In the Utah and California cases, we see a familiar dynamic at play — an older, somewhat more moderate, “establishment” candidate has lost favor with an increasingly strident activist base. Utah is, of course, very safe for Republicans, just as California is for Democrats, meaning that the party has some flexibility in its choice of nominee; they’re very unlikely to lose control of the seat in either case. And in these cases, the younger activist community just isn’t sold on the idea that they have to stick with the more conventional candidate.

But this assertion of party influence isn’t limited to state-level activists. Recently, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee decided to throw its weight around in the Democratic primary for Texas’s Seventh Congressional District in Houston, a competitive district currently held by Republican John Culberson. Writer/activist Laura Moser is one of seven candidates running for the Democratic nomination, and the DCCC is attacking her based on comments Moser previously made disparaging Paris, Texas.

This is, in many ways, the opposite of the examples in Utah and California. The party establishment is trying to push what it sees as a less electable candidate out of the race, angering the activist community.

Nonetheless, these examples are all signs of an active party system that isn’t simply sitting back and letting voters nominate anyone they want. They also reveal some of the consequences of having a glut of candidates, which the GOP has been experiencing in recent years and which is happening in record numbers on the Democratic side this year. With a crowded candidate field, activists and voters have a lot more choices and don’t have to be as accepting of what they might see as suboptimal candidates. But that also means that party leaders may become more active in driving events, lest an unqualified candidate squeak through with a narrow share of the primary vote.

Also of importance is that states, and state parties, learn from each other. No doubt Utah’s recent example is on the minds of Colorado’s party activists right now. Colorado has a new twist on its already complex nominating system this year. Candidates have two ways of qualifying for the June primary — they can go through the caucus system, which is only available to registered party members, or they can petition onto the ballot in the newly open primary. There’s liable to be significant tension between supporters of those candidates who went the party route and those who went the signature route.

But the overall lesson here is that parties are alive and kicking. Just because they seemed pretty weak at the presidential level in 2016 doesn’t mean that they’re content to let events rule them in the 2018 midterms.