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The Virtues of Smoke-Filled Rooms

Stronger parties would give us better candidates.

Republican Triumvirate
Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Will H. Hays, with Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge, Washington DC, 1920. (Photo by FPG/Keystone View Company/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Doug Mastriano for Governor was a disaster for Pennsylvania. The Mastriano campaign raised shockingly little money, ran almost no advertising, and seemed to limit campaigning to events and social media posts geared toward those who were already supporters. Pennsylvania is an extremely purple swing state, and Mastriano came in bearing a far-right “extremist” reputation. He would have been a hard sell under the best of circumstances, but there was zero chance he was going to convince the Pennsylvania moderates and independents to vote for him when he didn’t even make the effort.

Those who voted for Mastriano in the primary had no reason to think he wouldn’t run a spirited campaign. One would expect that Mastriano would have used his grassroots support from the conservative, largely Christian base that elected him in order to fundraise, spread his message, and try to appeal to a wider voter population. But even if he had run a flawless campaign, nominating Doug Mastriano to run for governor in Pennsylvania was always going to be a serious mistake. It was one that could have been avoided, if political parties still played their traditional, strong-handed role in the candidate selection process.

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The Pennsylvania GOP botched this one. At one point in early 2022, there were as many as 15 candidates seeking the Republican nomination for governor. When the primary was conducted in May, there were still nine candidates. This makes for a messy and confusing primary, where voters have such a crowded field from which to choose. This is hardly the ideal environment to pick a good candidate who can win a crucial statewide election. In February 2022, the Pennsylvania Republican State Committee met and made the unusual decision not to endorse a candidate in the primary. This failure of the party to act and help clear the field to create a navigable primary reveals at least two problems with the current state of political parties. 

First, there has been a complete change in the process by which a party selects its candidates. In the past, political parties had internal processes to select their candidates and there was no caucus or primary by popular vote. Candidates were selected by party elites in proverbial (and often literal) smoke-filled rooms. In the name of popular participation and the input of more voters, the process evolved into the modern primary election. Even as primaries emerged as the norm, political parties continued to put a thumb on the scales by exerting political pressure to push weak candidates out, directing donors toward particular candidates, and formally endorsing the party-preferred candidate.

There is a massive downside to the evolution of the modern primary system. There are many factors that ought to influence the selection of a candidate: substantive policy positions, ability to navigate the political process, personality, style. In the modern age, our primary elections consist of vicious attack ads, shallow stage debates, and quite a bit of pandering to the party base. It’s hardly a recipe to get the best overall candidate for a general election. 

Back to Mastriano. There was a nine-way primary election this past May. The candidates ranged from long-time politicians to businessmen who had never held major political office. But there were very few who truly appealed to the hardcore Trump base. In that climate, it was almost certain that moderate Republicans, as well as solid conservatives who thought Mastriano was simply a bad candidate or had no chance in the general election, would split their allegiances among several alternatives. From that moment in February where the Pennsylvania GOP eschewed the smoke-filled room and let the people choose freely from this confused melee of Republicans, the nomination of Doug Mastriano and eventual election of Democrat Josh Shapiro was almost a foregone conclusion. 

This leads to a second, more general point: political parties have largely lost their purpose. The biggest change was the massive overhaul of campaign finance law via legislation and court decisions in the early 2000s. In particular, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002—commonly known as the McCain-Feingold Act—changed the game for political parties by preventing unlimited “soft money” contributions by big companies, labor unions, etc. This meant that political parties could no longer accept large donations that could be spent on particular candidates or campaigns. 

Around the same time the political parties lost much of their financial power, the Supreme Court issued a series of related campaign finance decisions—Citizens United v. FEC in 2010 followed closely by Speechnow.org v. FEC and McCutcheon v. FEC—paving the way for free speech protections for “Independent Expenditure Committees,” the now-infamous super PAC. 

Political parties could no longer collect unlimited contributions from mega-donors and pass that money along to the party-preferred candidates. At the same time, independent committees could form, collect unlimited contributions from those same mega-donors, and spend the money promoting particular candidates or messages—as long as the committee did not coordinate directly with the candidate. This took away the power of the political party to control campaigns and the selection of candidates, and gave much of that power to whoever had the money and desire to fill the void.

The smoke-filled room has its benefits. Those with exceptional gifts to understand the country and its issues, the appeals and drawbacks of certain candidates, and the way to get good policy results, should use those gifts to recruit and promote the best possible candidates. As long as those rooms contain the right cigars and the right people, there is a strong argument that this is preferable to simply allowing the masses to view endless campaign ads and then choose candidates for themselves. But if Republican lovers of democracy will not have the smoke-filled room, they should question why they have the Republican Party at all.

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