Editorial: A thank you to candidates, and a wish that there were more of them

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

It is time to do some election math in Douglas County.

Thankfully this exercise doesn’t have anything to do with the actual counting of votes. That process is scheduled to end on Monday, when the last of about 600 provisional ballots are counted, and a “canvassing” process certifies the vote totals. Douglas County is fortunate to have an extraordinary county clerk in Jamie Shew. It is easy to predict that the election results will have integrity and be accepted by candidates as legitimate.

That’s also, in part, due to quality candidates who ran for the right reasons. Everybody who put her or his name on the ballot in Douglas County deserves our thanks. Running for office takes time, energy, patience, a thick skin and many other attributes that can be difficult to find. But it is critically important for any community that wants to remain prosperous to have a good inventory of people who are willing to serve in local government.

That gets us back to the math problem. It goes like this: 1 Democratic Party plus 0 Republican Party equals one too few parties in Douglas County.

That’s not so much a statement about the political positions of the two parties. Rather, it is a statement in the value of having general elections that pit two candidates against each other. Further, it is a statement about the flaws of primary elections.

An election should be helpful in gauging the mood of the public. A couple of trends are easy enough to spot. Female candidates continued to do very well with Douglas County voters, and nothing in the results shows any sign of momentum for expansion of the Douglas County Jail. On that issue, it has been quite a change in direction in the last two years, and it is one of the more dramatic reminders that people speaking out on an issue can make a difference.

But in other ways, it was tough to read the intent of voters, and that’s partly due to the nature of primary races. Take the Douglas County Commission 2nd District race as an example. That race is extremely close and won’t be settled until after Monday’s canvass. Incumbent Nancy Thellman leads challenger Shannon Reid by six votes.

But it was not simply a two-woman race. Sara Taliaferro didn’t come close to winning, but did garner about 25% of the vote. That makes it difficult to interpret the sentiment of a majority of voters in the race. Are the results the sign of a major incumbent backlash? After all, the two challengers received more than 1,500 votes more than the incumbent. If that is the message, though, it is largely undelivered because the incumbent is leading the race and has a good chance of keeping her seat.

Or maybe the message is that voters wanted a moderate candidate, which Thellman is seen as a more moderate candidate than Reid, but Thellman and Taliaferro split that vote. Again, if that is the message, it is largely undelivered.

The problem isn’t that three people ran for this seat. The problem is what comes next. It appears there will be no credible general election in the race. A Republican, Brett LaRue, filed for the seat, but before the primary was even over he said he wasn’t going to actively campaign, and he endorsed Thellman. It will be interesting to see if he changes his position if Reid wins.

Primaries often can overemphasize the far edges of the political spectrum. Look at the type of candidates in U.S. Congress that often come from districts that are controlled by one party. But the structure of primary races also is problematic. For instance, if you are a liberal candidate running against a moderate candidate in a primary, your wisest strategy is perhaps to find a friend to run a semi-credible campaign as a moderate to split that vote.

We’re not suggesting that happened in any races here, but it is a good reminder of why it isn’t the best idea for primary elections to be the de facto general elections. Primaries can lead to bad government if candidates never have to moderate their message to win a general election.

If you are a Democrat who doesn’t believe that, ask yourself this question: How many U.S. Congressional seats would you like to see decided solely by Republican primaries?


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