Eric Cantor is exiting the stage quietly, resigning next month as House majority leader and declining to run as a write-in candidate after his defeat in this week’s Republican primary in Virginia. His magnanimity makes him an ideal champion for a new cause: eliminating “sore loser” laws.
Virginia, like 43 other states, prohibits candidates who lose their party primaries from qualifying for the general election ballot as independents. Instead, if such candidates want to continue their quests for office, the state forces them to tilt at windmills, by mounting write-in campaigns. Only a small handful of House and Senate candidates have ever succeeded as write-ins.
These laws, known as “sore loser laws,” take various forms, but have the same effect: With rare exceptions, they end the campaigns of candidates who fail to win over the party base. That’s good for party discipline and unity. But party leaders — not the government — should be responsible for enforcing party discipline and promoting party unity. Government’s interest lies in ensuring access to the ballot for candidates and voters, not protecting party prerogatives.
Sore loser laws would be bad enough if their pernicious effects were limited to abridging the rights of candidates and limiting the choices of voters. But it gets worse: They also contribute to the dysfunctional polarization of the U.S. political system, by reinforcing the extremism of party primaries.
A new Pew Research Center poll finds what has been long evident: Voters who participate in party primaries tend to be more stridently ideological than the general electorate. They push candidates in both parties to toward extreme positions, and they punish those who do not move far or fast enough. They also contribute to political polarization.
Almost every successful party primary challenge occurs from the far right or left, of course. And the constant, looming threat of a primary challenge leads incumbents to adopt hard-line positions that are often out-of-sync with the general electorate, which makes bipartisan compromise exceedingly rare. Fear of being “primaried” is perhaps the most powerful force in Washington today, and it is a leading cause of its dysfunctional culture.
Sore loser laws compound this problem in two ways. First, they encourage candidates — and incumbents — to cater to the extremists in their party. Second, they prevent moderate candidates who lose party nominations from appealing to the broader electorate.
In 2010, then-Sen. Robert Bennett, a Utah Republican, lost his party’s nomination (which was decided by a vote of 3,500 convention delegates) to an ideologically conservative activist, Mike Lee. Had Utah’s law permitted Bennett to run as an independent, he may or may not have won. But at least that decision would have been made by voters, instead of being foreclosed by a sore loser law.
Contrast Bennett’s experience with that of former Sen. Joseph Lieberman, of Connecticut, which has no such law. After Lieberman lost a Democratic primary election in 2006, he ran and won as an independent in the general election.
If Eric Cantor won’t challenge sore loser laws, someone else should.
Repealing them wouldn’t end the dysfunctional polarization of U.S. politics, but it would help.