Richard Lugar is an 80 year old Republican running for his seventh term in the U.S. Senate. He's considered a moderate by current GOP standards, which is why he faces a serious challenge from a "Tea Party" candidate for the Republican nomination, state treasurer Richard Mourdock. The latest opinion poll shows Lugar trailing Mourdock by ten percentage points. Faced with the prospect of becoming a lame duck after tomorrow's primary, Lugar has gone over the heads of his fellow Republicans, reportedly urging Democrats and independents to vote for him in the open primary. While the Democrats of Indiana already have a candidate for Lugar's seat, they ran no candidate against the Senator in 2006, the year their party reclaimed the Senate without their help. Only a Libertarian dared challenge Lugar that year, and he got 13% of the vote for his trouble. Lugar's reasoning seems to be that, as the Democratic party does have a candidate this time, the Republican primary could be the last chance Democrats who like him will have to actually vote for him. The implicit argument is that they have a right to vote for him now -- to force him upon his own party if necessary.
Open primaries always raise questions about the autonomy of political parties. It seems reasonable for members of a party to have exclusive say over who runs for office in their name. On the other hand, given how few "real" choices voters supposedly have, many people want a voice in selecting both major candidates, in the hope of having the best possible choices in the general elections. Running as an independent may not be an option for Lugar, but his plight makes one wonder whether, so long as we don't impose term limits on legislators, incumbents should automatically be eligible for the general election if they want to remain in office. Lugar strikes me as someone past his prime, and his relative moderation probably looks less moderate from an objective perspective, but it's fair to ask whether a popular representative's constituents as a whole should be denied an opportunity to re-elect him simply because his party doesn't want him any more. My idea may go in the opposite direction of all the theoretically popular demands for term limits, but we might learn something about our political system, if not ourselves, if we entitled incumbents to an automatic spot on the general-election ballot. We would at least have some definite proof of how much of an advantage incumbency is. The case of Sen. Lieberman appeared to prove that incumbency, if not personal popularity, could trump partisanship. Defeated in his Democratic primary for his support of the invasion of Iraq, Lieberman was re-elected as an independent after scrambling to earn a ballot spot. If Lugar could do the same thing, it might prove something about incumbency -- but what if he took advantage of a guaranteed spot for the incumbent, despite his party, and still lost? Would that prove that partisanship or ideology can sometimes trump the alleged power of incumbency? Some might argue that my idea -- I wouldn't go so far as to call it a proposal yet -- would only entrench incumbents, since incumbents could use their guaranteed spot on the general election ballot to deter any primary challenge, and dissident partisans would be reluctant to challenge incumbents in the first place for the same reason. However elections turned out, they would be clarifying events. Are we ruled by parties, or by a clique of incumbents? Do parties (and the Bipolarchy) derive their power from incumbency, or vice versa? Many observers may feel that both incumbency and partisanship are bad things, but the two perceived malignancies tend to blur in our perception. Separating incumbency from partisanship might allow us to isolate each problem and help us figure out remedies for both, while term limits promise relief from one problem at most. This may be heresy, or simply devil's advocacy, but think about it a moment before dismissing the idea.