A Smarter Way to Primary

Every election season touches off a debate between more risk-averse Democratic Party operatives and campaign professionals and less risk-averse progressive activists over the wisdom of launching primary challenges to sitting members of Congress.

The operatives wince at primaries to sitting members because they understandably want to win as many seats as possible, and don’t want to risk any seats flipping to the Republicans.

The activists also want to win as many seats as possible, but they remember years like 2009 when it was difficult to get many Democratic members of Congress (and especially Senators) on board with key progressive goals – a larger stimulus, mortgage cramdown, cap and trade – even when the party enjoyed supermajorities in both Houses. What good are big majorities, they think, if you can’t do anything with them?

This debate shows no signs of ending any time soon, but now there is a way to channel activist energy toward the lowest-value members in the lowest-risk districts and states.

Using the Primary Colors scoring system and interactive map tool, progressive activists will be able to hone in on members of Congress in safe seats whose voting records are more conservative than their districts require.

A member’s “primary score” is determined by comparing a district’s PVI (how much more Democratic or Republican it is than the median district) and the incumbent member’s ideology. We represent member ideology with a composite of DW-NOMINATE scores – which essentially measure party-line voting –  and Progressive Punch scores which are more issues-based.

We have found that these scores do an excellent job of singling out members we already suspected were more conservative than necessary, even while recognizing that no scoring system can be perfect. We are looking forward to improving our methodology based on feedback from readers, and are open to recommendations for improvements.

The upside for party officials and campaign operatives is that the scoring system also rewards members who come in for criticism by activists over conservative votes, but actually are delivering good value to progressives when district politics are factored in. We imagine that Primary Colors will spend almost as much time counseling activists to back off from primary challenges as it will spend encouraging them.

But make no mistake – the objective of this organization is to encourage more frequent primary challenges to incumbent Democrats in safe seats. Safe seat members are responsible for leading the way on progressive issues, and expanding the horizon of what is considered politically possible. The Democratic Party needs more progressive superstars in these districts, and activists just got some powerful new tools to elect them.