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Texas GOP increasingly considers push to close its primaries

By Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune

Texas GOP increasingly considers push to close its primaries” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Texas Republicans are increasingly debating who should be allowed to vote in their primary as the March 5 contest nears with the presidential nominee at the top of the ticket.

The debate has increased in recent days as presidential candidate Nikki Haley has talked openly about targeting states like Texas that have open primaries, or primaries that are open to voters regardless of partisan affiliation. But even before the former South Carolina governor started trumpeting her strategy, GOP activists in Texas were zeroing in on limiting the state’s primary to Republicans, crafting a nonbinding ballot proposition on the March 5 ballot to gauge support for the idea.

Haley’s strategy only added fuel to the fire.

“This is a very obvious call for Democrat crossover voting in the Republican Primary, which we know already happens in Texas on a large scale,” Texas GOP Chair Matt Rinaldi said last week in response to a Haley campaign memo on the topic. “The [Texas GOP] must prioritize closed primaries.”

Even U.S. Sen. John Cornyn — who i’s often at odds with the state party under Rinaldi — said he is fine with closing the primary.

“I don’t have any problem with closing the primary, but I don’t see it as a huge issue in Texas,” Cornyn said in a radio interview last week.

Texas is one of 16 states that have open primaries, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Texas voters do not have to declare a party affiliation when they register to vote, and they can choose to vote in either the Democratic or Republican primaries. In the event of a runoff election, they cannot switch to the other party’s primary runoff to vote.

Eight states have fully closed primaries, according to the NCSL. Those are states where a voter formally affiliates with a party and can only vote in that party’s primary.

There are shades of gray, however. In several states, voters can identify as unaffiliated with any party before a primary and then choose which primary to vote in.

That is the case in New Hampshire, where Haley recently finished second to former President Donald Trump in its primary.

Trump and his allies were quick to note that Haley appeared to benefit from New Hampshire’s primary. Exit polls showed that “independents or something else” made up 44% of the electorate and they favored Haley by a comfortable margin. Democrats comprised 6% of the votes, and they almost all preferred Haley.

In a memo the day after New Hampshire, Haley campaign manager Betsy Ankney said they were looking forward to competing in upcoming open primaries, including Texas, calling them “significant fertile ground for Nikki.”

“Eleven of the 16 Super Tuesday states have open or semi-open primaries,” Ankney wrote. “Of the 874 delegates available on Super Tuesday, roughly two thirds are in states with open or semi-open primaries. Those include Virginia, Texas, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Vermont, all with favorable demographics.”

Ironically, on the same ballot where Haley hopes to attract non-GOP voters, the state GOP will have a nonbinding ballot proposition measuring support for closing primaries in Texas. The proposition — one of 13 — asks primary voters to vote “yes” or “no” on whether the “Republican Party of Texas should restrict voting in the Republican primary to only registered Republicans.”

Closing the primary in Texas would require the state or parties to come up with a party registration system. Proponents have largely avoided that topic for now, instead focusing on raising alarm that Democrats are meddling in Texas GOP primaries.

Beyond the presidential nominee, Texans will be asked to vote for their party’s nominee for U.S. Senate, Congress and Texas Legislature. The state has long been dominated by one party — the GOP — and after redistricting the general election is less competitive than it has been in years, placing even more importance on the primary. So it’s not new that Democrats may feel like their vote matters more in a Republican primary than a Democratic one. But measuring the impact of crossover voting is seldom easy and accessible, requiring granular analysis of voters and their preferences.

Even as he expressed openness to a closed Texas primary, Cornyn suggested it would not affect how he runs his races.

“I’ve run in a number of primaries, and you know, typically repeat primary voters are the target for advertising and those are the ones you’re talking to,” Cornyn said in the radio interview with Mark Davis in Dallas. “And once the primaries are over, then you broaden your appeal to the people who are not primary voters, who are general-election voters, who you need to win.”

On the right, there has been a more specific outcry over crossover voting in special elections in Texas, which are also open and often so low-turnout that such voting can make more of a difference.

The dynamic was closely watched in 2021, when U.S. Rep. Jake Ellzey of Waxahachie, upset a Trump-endorsed rival, Susan Wright, in a special election runoff for an open congressional seat in North Texas. One GOP analysis later found that 14% of voters in the runoff were likely Democrats.

It could be a factor in a special election runoff Tuesday for a Texas House seat in North Texas, where Jill Dutton is searching for a coalition that could defeat fellow Republican Brent Money and his army of big-name GOP endorsers.

“I personally don’t like special elections,” conservative consultant Luke Macias, who supports Money, said in a recent podcast. “Politically, I hate them. The reason I hate them is because Democrats vote in special elections. It’s not a Republican primary, so you can actually win the Republican primary voters in a Republican district 55-45 or 60-40 and still lose if enough Democrats show up and all vote for the more liberal option.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/01/29/texas-republicans-open-closed-primaries-nikki-haley/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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