Sometimes 90 percent just isn’t good enough.
Ask Mitch McConnell, the most powerful Republican in the U.S. Senate, who, despite a lifetime approval rating of 90 percent from the American Conservative Union, is out of step with some GOP Kentuckians.
A recent Courier-Journal Bluegrass Poll of 609 registered voters found twice as many people promising to vote against McConnell as those committed to supporting him (34 percent of Republicans said they’d support him against all competitors).
And this is the Senate minority leader who stated that “the single most important thing” the GOP could achieve was limiting President Barack Obama to a single term. McConnell has drawn the ire of some with Tea Party leanings for his role in crafting the 2008 Wall Street bailout and for his recent deal with Vice President Joe Biden that avoided the fiscal cliff.
Although the election is still a year away, the clamor for a primary opponent to run against McConnell raises the prospect of another GOP Senate seat succumbing to the party’s ongoing purity effort. However, instead of dealing with these self-inflicted party wounds, some Republicans are focused on changing the way states assign electoral votes in presidential elections.
Currently, 48 states have winner-take-all systems for their electoral votes. The candidate who wins the popular vote in the state receives each congressional district’s electoral vote, as well as the two that states are assigned for their U.S. senators. Nebraska and Maine award electoral votes by congressional district, with the winner of the statewide popular vote earning the two remaining electoral votes.
In Pennsylvania, Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi is contemplating another attempt to change how the commonwealth awards electoral votes, this time assigning them “proportionately,” based on the popular vote. Virginia, Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio have also considered abandoning the winner-take-all approach. Republicans control each of those state governments, though all those states went for President Obama in November.
If approved, such changes would be significant. If, in November, every electoral vote in the country had been awarded by congressional district (plus two votes for the statewide victor), Mitt Romney would have won the Electoral College, 276 to 262.
That’s because much of the Democratic vote tends to be concentrated in urban areas. If only Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Virginia adopted the new system, Obama’s sizable electoral-vote win — 332 to 206 — would have been reduced to 271 to 267.
In Pennsylvania, Obama defeated Romney by 52 percent to 47 percent, winning the commonwealth’s 20 electoral votes. Under Pileggi’s plan, Romney would have carved away eight of those electoral votes. Similarly, Obama won Virginia by nearly 4 percentage points, capturing its 13 electoral votes. But under the proposed plan, Romney would have won nine of them. (One caveat: If the votes were tabulated by popular vote, the campaigns would have altered their game plans and, arguably, the result.)
In recent days, it appears several states are backing away from making changes, with the exception of Pennsylvania.
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, sees flaws in the proposals.
“I would say the very same thing if Democrats were doing this: This is rigging the system. This is fixing the system, fixing it in the wrong way,” Sabato told me. “You cannot justify this. ... This system, if it’s adopted nationally, would permit a candidate to lose the popular vote by 5 million or more votes and still become president. Can you say the word ‘insurrection’?”
He added, “There’s one practical advantage to the Electoral College. In close elections, it isolates recounts, as it did in 2000. We had a recount that mattered in one state. If we go to popular vote, we’re going to have very close elections, like 1880, where 10,000 votes separated the two candidates. That means a national recount in hundreds of thousands of precincts. We’ll never get a president.”
That’s why it would seem a more prudent path for the GOP to focus on a more existential threat.
In 2010, Tea Party candidates cost the GOP control of the Senate by throwing away four otherwise winnable seats: Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware and Nevada. In 2012, that list was expanded to include Indiana and Missouri. Each was a state where a candidate’s conservative bona fides enabled a primary victory but led to defeat in the general election.
Mitch McConnell has shown he can win general elections in Kentucky, where Democrats have a registration edge. But, despite his 90 percent conservative rating, he may face a primary challenge for not being conservative enough.
Republicans should stop worrying about the Electoral College and instead fix their primary problem before McConnell joins the growing list of ousted public officials whose willingness to compromise was found untenable by a relatively small but passionate cadre of primary voters.
Here’s a two-word solution: open primaries.