Recent reports that dark money Democratic political committees are attempting to influence Colorado’s Republican primary voters may sound bizarre to most voters but not to anyone who’s been involved in 21st century political campaigns. This kind of subterfuge isn’t something new or limited only to Democrats. Partisan meddling has moved from pranking to strategy for both parties. Often, these meddlers have more money, consequently enjoy more visibility and, arguably, greater impact than candidates themselves. In fact, one Democrat, who won four elections in a swing legislative district told me she worried more about what her ostensible "allies" might be willing to do to help her than she did about attacks from her Republican opponents.
Much of what lies behind this legerdemain are structural defects in our election process. Historically, it is the most zealous partisans who turn out to vote in primary contests, pulling their parties further left and right. Therefore, attacking the most conservative Republican candidates, or the most liberal Democrats, as “…too extreme for Colorado” sends a dog whistle to fringe voters that these are the candidates they should be supporting. The decision to allow independents to cast ballots in the primary election of their choice was intended to help pull candidates back toward the center. We don’t have enough experience to know whether this will actually moderate the choices in our general elections, but preliminary results are hardly encouraging. California’s adoption of open primaries, where the two candidates receiving the most votes meet in a run-off election, regardless of party affiliation, may have more merit.
At an even more fundamental level, Americans have never reached agreement on the purpose of elections. Are they closer in character to a sports competition, where voters determine who is the ablest political gymnast? Or should they be a comparative appraisal of public policy priorities? Most media has opted for the sports metaphor, closely tracking the horse race, while emphasizing style points over technical difficulty. Inattentive voters don’t help. Can you imagine thousands of Colorado voters sitting through six hours of debate — touching on immigration, taxation, abortion, gun control, social media, transgender athletes and more? For that matter, with the sole exception of Bill Clinton, how many politicians could hold our attention for the better part of a day? Yet, this was routine during the 19th century. Their State Fairs offered a lot more than blue-ribbon pies.
At a time when democracy seems to have lost much of its allure, concerned citizens in both parties are suggesting we should revitalize civics education in America’s public schools. Since democracy was never designed as a spectator sport, rather as a lifetime of commitment to civic engagement, there is nothing to be lost by instilling a sense of personal involvement with the entire package of mutual responsibilities inherent to constitutional governance. This will not and cannot be successful, however, if we fail to confront difficult issues. What is democratic about Florida’s efforts to forbid classroom discussion of slavery, racism, sexual preference or gay marriage? We extended the vote to 18-year old men and women following the Vietnam War, another subject of considerable sensitivity, on the grounds that when you were old enough to be drafted to fight (and die) for your country, you were old enough to vote. High school seniors can handle substantial doses of reality training.
Apparently, there is a dark-money outfit calling itself the Muckrakers that has landed in Colorado to harass Lauren Boebert. Coming off their recent success in terminating the Congressional career of Madison Cawthorn in North Carolina, they hope to smear Boebert with dubious, even fraudulent charges of impropriety. I’m sorry, but this is more than distasteful. Boebert has already proven her ignorance is far more dangerous than stupid. If she hangs on to her seat this year, she should consider the fate of Marilyn Musgrave, who tested the tolerance of Colorado Republicans for two terms before being tossed to the curb. I can’t wait for the fate awaiting her. Partisans on both sides of the aisle at the Capitol should adopt state rules forcing greater transparency in campaign spending. Dark money PACS would fold if donors thought their names might be released.
Unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court has done us no favors in this regard. Decisions that awarded personhood to corporations, equated money with political speech and then designated contribution limits as a curtailment of that free speech have poisoned our politics. When campaigns are reduced to auctions, we should not be surprised when the winners are the highest bidders. Nor should we be surprised that Congress repeatedly fails to adopt legislation supported by 80% of Americans and little wonder that so many suspect the system is rigged — rigged in favor of dark money. The strategy may be amoral, but it’s a winner.
Miller Hudson is a public affairs consultant and a former Colorado legislator.