SPRINGFIELD — Democrats faced a dilemma on Saturday: whether to value ruthless electoral efficiency or to honor the party’s putative spirit of inclusion.
Or, to put it another way: Should they help Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic frontrunner, by squashing the candidacy of long-shot challenger Marisa DeFranco, thereby letting Warren turn her full focus on incumbent Senator Scott Brown?
Or should they abide by small-d democratic values by putting DeFranco on the primary ballot, knowing Brown could use the excuse of theDemocrats’ contested primary as an excuse for sidestepping Warren until after the September 6 primary?
In the end, the Democrats opted for ruthless electoral efficiency. Warren won the endorsement vote with almost 96 percent of the vote, an unprecedented margin for a contested race and the only time in modern history that a Democratic convention has denied a candidate a ballot spot in a two-person race. It’s the same thing the Republicans did in 2010, when they gave Charlie Baker an unimpeded path by denying rival Christy Mihos a primary ballot spot.
Eliminating DeFranco’s candidacy means that the general election campaign starts now — as well it should for a race of this magnitude. Asked if she wanted to debate Brown this summer, Warren replied: “I’d love to see some debates with Scott Brown. Let’s start. Let’s get started. I’m ready.”
Brown should accept that challenge. He should accept it not because he owes it to Warren, but because both candidates owe it to the voters of Massachusetts.
The two should follow the example set in 1996 by Bill Weld and John Kerry, who held nine high-profile debates in their epic Senate contest. Those encounters focused that Senate race on big, important issues and gave voters the opportunity to take the full measure of the two rivals. The debates ended up boosting the stature of both candidates.
Finally, there’s a relatively simple way to avoid the dilemma Democrats faced yesterday and Republicans confronted two years ago: Hold a spring, rather than a September, primary.
It makes little sense for primary campaigns — intra-party contests that usually feature relatively like-minded candidates — to drag on for month after month after month, only to spend two months or less on the general election campaign, where the differences are far more significant.
Yesterday no less eminent a Democrat than Michael Dukakis said that the state should move to a spring primary.
“I don’t know why I didn’t do it when I was governor,” said Dukakis, adding that a September primary “doesn’t make a lot of sense.” Not unless one is an incumbent, that is. The real reason for such a late primary, of course, is that it’s tantamount to an incumbent-protection program; such a system gives a challenger only limited time to focus on the officeholder.
But though that’s a good thing for incumbents, it’s not for voters. To adopt a favorite political slogan, when it comes to the primary schedule,it’s time for a change.