John East: In Elections, Conservatives Must Reach Out to Independents from Day 1

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By John East: 

There is good news for voters who feel ignored by Annapolis: the state Republican Party is currently considering whether to allow unaffiliated voters (often referred to as “Independents”) to vote in the Republican primary next year.

Many people refer to this as allowing for an “open primary.” That is not actually the case. Nineteen states have true open primaries in which anyone can vote in any primary they choose. What is being considered is more accurately referred to as a “semi-closed” primary, because only unaffiliated voters — not Democrats —w ould be able to vote in the Republican primary. If Maryland Republicans go this route, Maryland would join the roughly 30 states where some form of an open, semi-closed or hybrid between the two systems exists.

Critics — including those in my own party — fear that allowing Republicans to reach out to independent-minded voters will “dilute” the Republican primary. The fears are not well-founded. In recent years, states with open primaries have sent Ted Cruz and Jim DeMint to the U.S. Senate, rejecting more moderate Republicans, while years ago, in the then-as-now swing state of North Carolina, their semi-closed primary sent the Tar Heel State’s first Republican since Reconstruction to the Senate, Jesse Helms.

The truth is Republicans must begin their race taking a conservative message to independent-minded voters. Preaching to the choir until shortly before Election Day is no recipe for success in Maryland.

The fear about “diluting” the Republican Party is also unfounded because conservatism is a big tent, and I don’t simply mean the familiar fiscal vs. social conservative distinction. Famous conservatives have held remarkably different views from one another.

Conservatism has embraced non-interventionists like Robert Taft and interventionists like George W. Bush. Conservatives have included libertarian-esque thinkers like Barry Goldwater (who strongly influenced Ronald Reagan) to persons far from the libertarian end of the spectrum like Phyllis Schlafly.

Conservatives have both embraced free trade and opening our borders to immigration as well as railed against these movements. Think of the difference between Ayn Rand and Pat Buchanan: both, I would argue, true conservatives.
Conservatism can be articulated in different ways and by different messengers: none would ever confuse Rush Limbaugh with Bill Buckley, but who would impeach the conservative credentials of either? The party apparatus should not try to decide whose message is the winning conservative message.

Allowing the growing number of unaffiliated voters to vote in the Republican primary will not guarantee Republican victories on Election Day, but it will allow independent-minded voters a greater opportunity to hear a conservative message and become involved in electing conservatives. Buy-in from independent-minded voters will increase, not decrease, the spread of conservative principles in Maryland. That’s not dilution.

John East is a lawyer practicing in Chestertown and the Vice-President of the Republicans of Kent County.

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