Let’s welcome primary challengers

Voters benefit when primary challengers face incumbents.

by Ronald Dixon

Every two years, Minnesota voters endorse candidates on all levels of government to run for office with the support of a political party. The process begins at the most local level at the beginning of the year during precinct caucuses, and it continues through the other conventions before ending at the state convention.

Many party loyalists love this system because it solidifies official candidates several months ahead of the November general election. Therefore, it’s not surprising that party leaders generally dislike opposition to party-endorsed candidates, which leads to the August primaries.

As a staunch DFLer, I completely sympathize with the views of DFL Party Chair Ken Martin, who publically expressed his disdain against former House minority leader Matt Entenza for challenging incumbent Rebecca Otto for state auditor. “His last-minute filing is an insult to the hard-working DFLers he has to win over,” Martin said in a statement, according to a Pioneer Press article from June.

Since Entenza threw his hat into the race earlier this summer, the DFL has rallied activists to volunteer their time to Otto’s campaign. While Otto has the force of numbers, Entenza could use his wealth to convince DFLers why he should replace the incumbent.

This phenomenon isn’t just happening in the executive branch. The University of Minnesota area’s long-serving incumbent, Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, failed to win the DFL nomination earlier this year after a contentious endorsing convention. Instead, Kahn and Mohamud Noor, a Minneapolis School Board member and Somali activist, will face off in the Aug. 12 primary.

Regardless of the frustrations of party leaders, incumbents and loyal activists on both sides of the political spectrum, voters greatly benefit from primary races.

First, many citizens who will vote during primary elections didn’t participate in the long convention process. Primary elections give voters a chance to approve the party-backed candidates, if there are any. While I wish not to discount the impact of party endorsements, as they represent the will of party advocates and the establishment, we should give all Minnesotans the chance to decide who moves on to the general election.

Also, primary elections are educational. At least from my perspective, I hardly knew the responsibilities of the state auditor until I read the news talking about the heated race. I am sure that many others, particularly young Minnesotans, had a similar experience.

Finally, when newcomers challenge candidates or incumbents in a primary, voters will question their background, ideology and record, and they will have to defend themselves. One of the main critiques against career politicians is that they get too comfortable and, as a result, become out of touch with constituents. Especially in safe districts, where one party is usually guaranteed to win, primary elections ensure that sitting politicians remain responsive to the needs of their constituents.

What is good for voters is good for democracy, and as such, we should strongly encourage primary challengers to run for office.