Staff Columnist

Johnson County Democrats pondering depth of partisan allegiance

Johnson County Democrats are fighting to maintain a united front ahead of this month’s special election for the Board of Supervisors.

Voters will pick either Democrat Royceann Porter or Republican Phil Hemingway to fill a vacant seat. Local elections typically are a cakewalk for local Democrats, who outnumber registered Republicans two-to-one. However, this contest has brought forth a fundamental question about political activism — is it acceptable for party members to break rank and vote for the other party’s candidate?

The latest hubbub started before the Democrats’ nominating convention last month when rumors swirled that former supervisor Pat Harney might not support Porter if she won the nomination over him. Porter won the nomination and Harney has not endorsed her.

“I think once you’ve made a commitment to a party and the party has made a selection, you probably ought to back them. If you can’t in good conscience back them, you ought to be quiet about backing someone else. Maybe you should reconsider being in the party,” current Supervisor Rod Sullivan told me this week.

However, the discussion has expanded to demand support from all party members, not just from the losing candidate. I have watched it play out on the local Democrats’ Facebook group, a closed forum that party leaders have graciously granted me access to. A common sentiment is anyone who votes for a Republican should “get out of the party.”

Harney, for his part, said last week he hadn’t committed to supporting either candidate in the special election, but he doesn’t believe party status should be the sole factor for voters.

“I’ve always said is there is one thing more important than the party and that’s the people of Johnson County, and I still believe that,” Harney told me.

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I don’t intend to influence this particular election one way or another. I agree with Hemingway’s argument that having one Republican would greatly enhance the board’s deliberations, but I also admire Porter’s record of local activism. Both candidates have many years of unique and valuable experience, and I think either could quickly tackle county government’s steep learning curve.

Instead, I hope to spark skepticism more broadly about the principle of party purity. As a lifelong Republican who cast a tri-partisan ballot in November, I have considered the issue often and ended up a cheerleader for the cause of flexible partisanship.

Party activists across the state and nation are pondering the same issues. Amber Gustafson, a Democrat who lost a close race to a prominent Republican state senator this year, recently published an election analysis on the liberal blog Bleeding Heartland, arguing the party should not be a social club, charity organization or issues advocacy group.

“We need a well-organized, mission-driven political party that is laser-focused on the one thing it was put on this earth to do: ELECT DEMOCRATS,” Gustafson wrote.

The organization itself may have a singular mission, but the same does not apply to individual members. For the small segment of Americans who base their identity on a political party, it may be easy to forget that most registered partisans don’t see electing members of our own party as a chief cause in life. Party membership is only one small piece of our civic duty.

The Democrats’ dust-ups are recent examples, but by no means is this a critique of just one party. My county’s Republican and Democratic parties both have bylaws that threaten removal of central committee members who openly support opposing candidates. I have seen all parties at all levels suffer from the same dynamic.

Examples of this habit among Republicans were plenty before and after the 2016 general election. Party activists in the “never Trump” camp continue to draw scorn from Trump loyalists. Iowa GOP chairman Jeff Kaufmann and national committeeman Steve Scheffler are two of the nation’s most prolific finger-waggers in this regard. Even Libertarians, who often preach about perils of partisanship, often resort to the same approach, standing by the candidates who seem to contradict the party platform on key issues.

Blind party allegiance is toxic, no matter the party. Withholding support, or even threatening to do so, is one of the most powerful tactics we have for forcing politicians to do the right thing.

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Consider Republican Sen. Rand Paul’s strategy during the Trump era. Paul, who I worked to support during the 2016 caucus season, was the most vocal critic of Trump in the crowded GOP nominating contest. Since then, Paul has warmed up to the Trump agenda, but only somewhat. He votes with the administration’s position 75 percent of the time, the lowest rate among Republican senators, according to FiveThirtyEight.

Where Paul has made the biggest fuss is on Trump’s federal appointments, frequently questioning the president’s nominees for their records on foreign policy and Fourth Amendment protections. Critics scoff that Paul is just grandstanding, since he often ends up voting to confirm Trump’s picks.

But that is precisely why the strategy works. By making clear that his vote is persuadable but not guaranteed, Paul buys himself the opportunity to bargain for other commitments and concessions. As one example, Paul eventually voted to confirm Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, but only after the former CIA director publicly acknowledged the Iraq War was a mistake, no small feat coming from an avowed military interventionist like Pompeo.

On the opposite end of the ideological spectrum, consider the maneuvers employed by the growing leftist group Democratic Socialists of America. They are recruiting and endorsing Democratic candidates, but the process is highly selective. The national committee endorsed only 18 candidates this year, and most won, even in primaries against establishment Democrats.

Voters can take the same approach. If your vote must be earned, you are in a position of power over politicians, as it should be. If your vote is automatically granted on the basis of party affiliation, you abdicate your duty to hold your own teammates accountable at the ballot box.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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