Who’s in charge?

Political parties still drive the election system

State legislators Julia Ratti (left), Skip Daly, Amber Joiner, Teresa Benitez Thompson and Mike Sprinkle at a legislative town hall.

State legislators Julia Ratti (left), Skip Daly, Amber Joiner, Teresa Benitez Thompson and Mike Sprinkle at a legislative town hall.


At a legislative town hall with five legislators at Cathexes last month, Washoe County Sen. Julia Ratti told the audience, “If there’s one thing we should have learned from the Bernie Sanders/Hillary Clinton campaign, it’s that the public is tired of anointments.”

Someone apparently didn’t get the word.

On July 6 at 6:17:53 a.m., Democrat Jacky Rosen—a U.S. House member in Clark County—announced her candidacy for U.S. Senate in an email.

Later that morning, at 11:20:28 a.m., Democratic U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto endorsed Rosen’s candidacy, although there were reports that other Democrats might also run.

At 12:50:10 p.m., U.S. Rep. Ruben Kihuen endorsed Rosen.

From D.C. at 1:36:06 p.m. came word that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee was taking sides in the primary by endorsing Rosen.

First thing the next morning, at 6:04:06 a.m., the feminist political action committee Emily’s List endorsed Rosen, though one of her prospective primary opponents is also a woman—veteran Democratic leader Dina Titus.

The message from some sectors of the Democratic Party was pretty clear—if anyone crossed Rosen, he or she would have to cross a lot of party structure, too

Was that an anointment? In any situation where a small number of people tell a large number of people who they get to choose from, that can be an anointment. But political scientist Fred Lokken says what has happened with Rosen is not what has come to be known as an anointment.

“That is the party boss saying, This is the person,” Lokken said, though he said it can also be a number of party bosses saying it. But he argues that thinning the field is something political parties are supposed to do. He called the Republican race for president in 2016 “insane” because of the sheer number of candidates and said party leaders should have given GOP voters some guidance on who the real candidates were. Failing to do so permitted Donald Trump to hijack the party.

“In the absence of functioning parties, how does the public know who’s credible?” he asked.

And some of his comments raise serious questions about what the system has evolved into.

“Both Republicans and Democrats do this, but it’s something that parties are supposed to do. … The excessive cost of campaigns has now made primaries deadly. A primary challenge can bankrupt a candidate going into the general election. … Primary challenges do not invigorate the party. They divide it.”

What does it say about the system that the effect of primaries must be neutralized? If Lokken is right about all this, it suggests that political parties are now wagging the political system instead of the other way around.

But anointments are a double-edged sword. There was a time when being part of the establishment paid off for candidates. That is less true now, and can even hurt a candidate. In 2014, when Tim Kuzanek announced his candidacy for Washoe County sheriff, he was able to list as supporters the incumbent sheriff, the mayors of Reno and Sparks, the county district attorney, and two former sheriffs. But he drew an opponent and lost.

By contrast, district attorney candidate Chris Hicks lined up a similar phalanx of backers—the mayors of Reno and Sparks, sheriff of Washoe County, the incumbent and two former district attorneys, three state senators, developers and casino executives—to keep competitors away. No one ran against Hicks.

One of the purposes of anointments is to scare off opponents. It worked for Hicks but not for Kuzanek—and then it became an issue against Kuzanek.

Parties dominate

But being seen as an outsider can also hurt, making a candidacy a tightrope. Trump’s dubious success as an officeholder may well be taking the shine off the notion of running as an outsider.

Does Lokken believe Ratti is right that 2016 showed the public is tired of anointments?

“I think the voters were tired of the Clintons, for sure. And what went on on the Republican side was insane—so many candidates. That’s what happens when you don’t have a structure.”

So the Democrats paid a price for anointment, and the Republican race cried out for anointment.

Traditionally, Republicans dealt with primaries with heavier hands than Democrats. Republican leaders stepped in to keep some candidates out, while in the Democratic Party that kind of conduct was resented. But Lokken thinks the money has become so big that neither party can afford to stay out of primaries.

“The party lends credibility and continuity,” he said. “If it doesn’t handle that role, the image is not of a vibrant party but of a party that’s dysfunctional and failed.”

In 1958, former car manufacturer E.L. Cord—who had moved to Nevada—intervened with money in the Democratic primary for governor on behalf of state Attorney General Harvey Dickerson. The tactic backfired, Cord became a principal issue in the campaign, and little-known former Elko County district attorney Grant Sawyer won both the primary and general elections.

But Lokken argues Nevada is not the small puddle it was then.

“Twenty-five million dollars was spent in this state two years ago,” he said. “Next year it will probably be $50 million. You don’t take chances with that kind of money.”

All this is happening at a time when the public cares little about political parties. Yet those parties, stuffed with soft money and serving as the conduit for numerous political action committees, are more powerful than ever, at a time when they command less and less public confidence.