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Will crossover voters create primary election shenanigans?

Despite all the rumors that periodically pop up, Minnesota’s political and election insiders see little chance of rogue voters affecting primary election outcomes.

In a year in which the DFL has a hotly contested gubernatorial primary and the Republicans are unified behind endorsed candidate Tom Emmer, there will be whispers that some Republicans may try to game the system.

Why wouldn’t Republicans cross over and vote in the DFL primary in an effort to nominate the party’s weakest candidate on the November ballot?

Because of Minnesota’s open-primary system, rumors of such shenanigans by one party or the other periodically pop up.

(In an open system, primary day voters don’t have to declare a party preference. Rather, they receive a ballot with all parties represented, then, in the privacy of the voting booth choose which party’s primary to participate in. A voter, however, can then only select candidates of that party in all partisan races.)

Despite rumors, ‘no real evidence’
According to Joe Mansky, Ramsey County’s elections manager and the state’s leading expert on elections issues, “there is no empirical evidence” that crossover voting has affected any major race in the state, at least dating to 1980.

Mansky also has a warning for those who might be tempted to cross over in an effort to weaken the opposing party: “Game playing can blow up in your face.”

He notes that turnouts for a primary always are small and likely will be even smaller this year, the first time it will be held this early (Aug. 10) date. That means each vote has far greater power than a November general election vote.

How can a crossover “blow up”?

Recent developments offer a classic example, when Sharon Scarella Anderson filed as a GOP candidate for attorney general.

She is a perennial candidate with one huge upset in her long, unusual, political resume: In 1994, she defeated the Republican Party’s endorsed candidate for attorney general Tom Neuville. Neuville, a serious candidate, decided to pay no attention to the primary — who would vote for a gadfly such as Sharon Anderson? — and focus all of his resources on what he presumed would be his general election race against incumbent Skip Humphrey. 

Given her surname, which is so comfortable to Minnesotans, and a small Republican turnout, she defeated Neuville. Serious Republicans were devastated. Humphrey couldn’t believe his good fortune and easily defeated Anderson in the general election. 

This time around, Anderson will be running against another endorsed Republican candidate, Chris Barden, who has far less name recognition among Republicans than Neuville, who was a state legislator. Until a few weeks ago, Barden was pretty much an unknown even among party insiders.

More aggressive in his conservative rhetoric than even Emmer (he sees “Obamacare” as “socialistic” and wants to sue the feds to halt national health care reform efforts), an obscure candidate such as Barden could face a tough race against any Anderson, especially if large numbers of Republicans cross over and vote in the DFL column in August.

Crossover votes present practical problems
Republican Party Chairman Tony Sutton points to a practical problem for any Republican who is considering crossing over.

Whom would they vote for?

At present, it appears to be a tight two-person race between Margaret Anderson Kelliher and Mark Dayton. (It remains to be seen if Matt Entenza’s hail-Mary choice of a running mate, Robyne Robinson, will raise his status in the polls.)

Tony Sutton
Tony Sutton

“Who would we prefer [Kelliher or Dayton]?” asked Sutton. “I’m not certain. The fact is, we have two big-city liberals, and that’s not going to play well in November. The two main candidates are treasure troves of background research for us. Dayton almost writes himself [as a potential opponent]. And it’s not hard to find all sorts of background on her, either. If anybody’s playing games [crossing over], I think they might end up canceling each other out.”

Is Horner vulnerable?
Tom Horner, the endorsed Independence Party candidate for governor, would be the most vulnerable target of any crossover attempt. The IP primary turnout will be small, meaning it doesn’t take huge numbers of crossovers to affect the IP race.

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Additionally, the state’s Republican Party has been hammering Horner at every opportunity, which is a backhanded form of compliment. Given the amount of effort the GOP is putting into ripping Horner, the party must be concerned he will take away Republican votes in November.

Horner, a lifelong moderate Republican until making the switch to IP this year, laughs at all the attention he’s receiving.

“I could put on all my elephant pins if that would make them like me better,” Horner said this morning.
But then he got serious. Like others, he doesn’t think crossover voting has had a major impact on Minnesota elections.

“Without explicit direction, it’s very tough to pull off,” he said.

Nonetheless, Horner said his campaign will be carefully watching for efforts that might be made by forces outside the IP to knock him out of the race. “We’ll be watching for extraordinary things,’’ said Horner.

Such as?

“If, all of a sudden one of our opponents [Rob Hahn and John Uldrich] are the two major IP primary foes] is able to advertise, that would be a sign [of outside money coming into the race],” said Horner.

“Or if you see one of my opponents developing issues that correlate with the Republican Party, that would be a sign.”

The key to blocking any crossover games-playing is to “work at getting as large a turnout as possible,” Horner said.

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6th District primary race no longer in play
The one other major competitive race where crossover voting might have had an impact was in the 6th Congressional District, where endorsed DFLer Tarryl Clark was going to face a challenge from Dr. Maureen Reed. But that competition ended Sunday when Reed, who might have attracted some moderate Republican support, announced she was suspending her campaign and throwing her support to Clark.

Like most who follow politics in Minnesota, Sutton always has heard about the potential of crossover voters affecting primaries, but he can’t point to any race where crossovers had meaningful impact.

On the surface, it seemed that Arne Carlson might have received crossover support in 1994. That was the year that Carlson, a popular incumbent governor, did not receive endorsement from a very socially conservative convention. Much to the chagrin of Republican legislators that year, Republican delegates threw their support to Allen Quist.

Carlson, though, went on to easily defeat Quist in the primary and breezed to a 2-to-1 victory over DFLer John Marty in the general election.

Neither Sutton nor Carlson thinks that DFL crossover votes were the major factor in Carlson’s easy primary victory dumping the endorsed candidate.

“Remember,” said Sutton, “the DFL had a tight contest of their own. [Marty, the endorsed candidate, ended up defeating Mike Hatch by 2 percentage points in that primary.] It’s just hard to measure if there were crossovers.”

For his part, Carlson believes that the endorsement of Quist actually pulled moderates together.

Arne Carlson
Arne Carlson

“I don’t know that DFLers crossed over,” said Carlson. “Really, your guess is as good as mine. But what I think you saw happen in that case was a lot of rallying among moderate Republicans.”

This time, of course, there will be no moderate challenge against Emmer, though off the record, a number of moderate Republicans had hoped that Emmer and Marty Seifert would have a long convention battle that would have ended in a stalemate. That would have allowed a big-name moderate to get into the Republican primary. Emmer, though, quickly slammed the door on both Seifert and any visions of a contested primary.

DFLers discount possibility
According to DFL strategists, there is no way to plan for dealing with crossover voting. The general feeling seems to be that it’s something that’s always talked about but never really happens.

“I think it would be very tough to pull off,” said Jamie Tincher, campaign manager for Kelliher.

She did add, “But we would certainly welcome any Republicans who want to cross over to vote for us.”

For his part, Sutton insisted that the Republican Party will not endorse any sort of crossover vote by members of his party.

“As a Republican,” Sutton said, “I’ve always been proud of voting for Republicans, even in a non-contested primary. We’re going to do some activities to make sure Republicans get out and support our ticket.”

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.