Thursday, March 13, 2008

Year of the Crossover?

What would it take for a Republican to vote for Hillary Clinton? Or for a Democrat to vote for a Republican for U.S. Senate? Answer: when your vote would help embarrass the opposing party without causing any real damage to your own.

With that as prelude, consider this scenario: It's June 3 and the polls are about to open for the statewide primary election. On the national scene, Clinton and Barack Obama remain locked in a desperate struggle for presidential convention delegates and, incredibly, Montana's could make the difference. Down the ballot, Democrats and Republicans alike have only a couple of contested statewide races to worry about and, on the Republican side, whoever wins the nomination for November's U.S. Senate race has a very uphill battle ahead.

So, why not vote on the other side and commit a bit of political sabotage? Since Montana is an "open primary" state, you can walk in and request either a Republican or Democratic party ballot. So, there's nothing to prevent voters on either side from crossing over in the hope of undermining a strong opponent or creating a victory for someone who would be an embarrassment to the opposing party.

Montana's Republican Party director Erik Iverson already has told me that if Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic nomination, Montana Republicans will flock to the polls in November to vote against her. That, he told me, could be bad news for Senator Max Baucus. Assuming the vote in the Democratic presidential preference primary will be close, would it be in Republicans' interest to cross over and vote for Clinton, as a way to encourage November turnout? Plus, if Clinton wins, Republicans will find any way possible to link Baucus with her.

Meanwhile, Democrats already know that Baucus and Governor Brian Schweitzer are unopposed in June. So is Jim Hunt, who will challenge U.S. Representative Denny Rehberg in the fall. Sure, there are contested races down the ballot, but the marquee races have no drama. So, why not try to influence who will challenge Baucus in the fall? A Bob Kelleher upset primary win, for instance, would be a poke in the eye of the GOP.

Admittedly, Democrats may look forward to the Clinton-Obama race so much that the idea of crossing over will not be attractive enough. And there may be enough party loyalty and interest in local and lesser statewide races that voters of both parties will stay true to their default leanings. But if Hollywood can imagine elections turning on more fanciful plots, and if Ron Paul supporters can stack some local Republican presidential caucuses, is some cross-party electoral sabotage unthinkable?

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