“Wake up! Wake Up!”
When I was a kid growing up in Oregon in the 1980s, a fellow by the name of Tom Peterson became famous for his low-budget, late-night TV commercials. Around midnight, he would appear, knocking on your TV screen, yelling “Wake up! Wake up!” and then exhort you to visit his appliance stores.
Consider this column a Tom Peterson ad targeted at one group, the Kansas Republican Party. They seem to be in a conundrum, but the solution is sitting right in front of them.
You see, with the retirement of U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, Kansas Republicans are holding a primary to pick their Senate nominee. The primary has attracted seven candidates, including big names, such as Congressman Roger Marshall, Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, businessmen Dave Lindstrom and Bob Hamilton, and 2018 GOP gubernatorial nominee Kris Kobach. Some in the party fear that with such a large field, the vote will be so fractured that the primary winner will not appeal to a significant number of party voters, setting the stage for a Democrat to possibly win in November.
Many analysts argue this is what happened in the 2018 GOP gubernatorial primary election, when Kobach defeated Governor Jeff Colyer, 40.62%-40.51%, in a seven-person race, after which Democrat Laura Kelly won the governorship. Other analysts say it also happened in the 2018 GOP 2nd District congressional primary election, when Steve Watkins defeated state Sen. Caryn Tyson, 26.5%-23.5%, in yet another seven-person race. Watkins went on to win the general election, but just barely.
So in late April, the chairman of the Kansas Republican Party asked Lindstrom and Wagle to bow out of the race, saying: “In order for Republicans to protect the U.S. Senate seat, it is time to clear the field for a candidate that has a path to victory against the Democrats.” Brad Cooper, of the Sunflower State Journal, wrote that many Republicans are afraid that the multi-candidate field “could lead to Kobach winning the primary and ultimately losing to [Democratic state Sen. Barbara] Bollier in the general election.”
Kobach, needless to say, wasn’t pleased with this development.
“Our next Senator will be chosen by the people of Kansas, not the party elites,” he said.
His point is taken, but when a candidate is chosen by, say, 25% of the voters, is he or she really chosen “by the people”? And does it help the party choosing said candidate when potentially giant chunks of their own party members don’t vote for the nominee? What to do? What to do?
Well, cue Tom Peterson. The answer is knocking you on the forehead: Ranked choice voting. Also known as instant-runoff voting, with this process each voter ranks the candidates in order of preference. If one candidate doesn’t garner 50% of first place votes, then the candidate who got the fewest votes in the first round is dropped, and the second preference votes of his or her supporters are distributed among the other candidates. This continues until a candidate reaches the 50% threshold.
Would this system help Kobach, Marshall, Wagle, Hamilton or Lindstrom? I have no idea. But it would likely produce a candidate acceptable to the majority of Republicans, something the current system cannot guarantee.
Bob Beatty is a political scientist in Topeka. He can be reached at email@example.com.