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Closing primaries would further divide, bring undesired consequences

Johnson City Press • Dec 6, 2018 at 12:00 AM

Given the overwhelming margin of victory Tennessee Gov.-elect Bill Lee enjoyed in November, you’d think most Republicans were pretty happy with their nominee.

But had Tennessee used a closed primary system, one would have to wonder: Would Lee would have made the final ballot?

While he’s certainly a true-red conservative, Lee was the least inflammatory of the three major contenders who made it to the finish line in a crowded primary field last August. Both Diane Black and Randy Boyd closely aligned themselves with President Donald Trump, turning off some moderate Republicans and liberal voters.

There can be little doubt that many independent voters and Democrats crossed over in August to vote in the GOP primary, which is allowed under Tennessee’s current open primary system.

Lee won 291,414 of the 792,888 votes cast in the primary. Just 373,390 total votes were cast in the Democratic primary. Primaries tend to draw out the base in each party, and without non-Republicans in the booth, either Boyd or Black might have emerged. We suspect the outcome would have been much closer at the least.

Clearly, Tennesseans liked the results. Lee went on to defeat Democratic Party nominee Karl Dean 59.59 percent to 38.52 percent with a margin of more than 470,000 votes.

But now Tennessee Republicans want the state to close the state’s political primaries to prevent pesky Democrats and independent voters from crossing over to affect nominations. As Press Senior Reporter Robert Houk reported in Tuesday’s edition, the GOP’s State Executive Committee approved a resolution Saturday asking the Republican-controlled Tennessee General Assembly to require residents to register by party affiliation.

Third District State Executive Committee member Todd Fowler, who also serves on the Johnson City Commission, cast one of the 45 votes in favor of the resolution. The district’s other representative, Anita Hodges Taylor, however, cast one of the 14 “no” votes.

Taylor said she polled Republican leaders in Carter, Unicoi and Washington counties and most said they were happy with the open primary process. She said they believe open primaries have helped the GOP elect better nominees, such as U.S. Rep. Phil Roe and Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy.

Taylor is right. Both Roe, when he was first elected in 2008, and Grandy this May were clear beneficiaries of crossover votes. Like Lee, Roe seems to enjoy universal support in his party, which has dominated Northeast Tennessee politics for more than a century, as he enters his sixth term in Congress.

Because of that domination, which now extends statewide, non-Republicans already have little voice in who represents them in Nashville and Washington, especially here in Northeast Tennessee. A closed primary would nail that door shut completely. We can’t help but wonder if that’s the reason the GOP Executive Committee wants to close the primaries. And they have to understand that to many outside the party this will look like a not-so-veiled attempt at voter suppression. Americans, including Tennesseans, already are divided enough without such tactics.

Republicans might do well to remember that it was not that long ago that the shoe was on other foot, as Democrats controlled both the Legislature and the governor’s office for decades. Politics are cyclical.

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