Four years ago, Joe Lieberman ran for re-election to the U.S. Senate, but was defeated in the Democratic primary in large part because the Democratic Party base was unhappy with his positions on the War on Terror. This past fall, Lisa Murkowski ran for re-election to the U.S. Senate, but was defeated in the Republican primary in large part because the Republican Party base was unhappy with her record as Senator. Both Murkowski and Lieberman refused to accept defeat and ran petulant third-party campaigns to keep their seats, and both won.
This would not happen in Indiana, where a “sore loser law” makes it illegal for a candidate defeated in the primary to run as an independent or with another party in the general election. (Indiana Code IC 3-8-1-5.5) If you lose in the primary, you are done. You can run for another office, but not for the office you previously sought.
This is a good law. It prevents sore losers from mucking up the general election and thwarting the will of the people. Generally, a sore loser will split his party’s vote, allowing the other party to win with a plurality even if a majority is split between the two most similar candidates. (Murkowski and Lieberman, obviously, are exceptions.)
It also encourages candidates to accept responsibility. Someone who truly wants to run as an independent or with a minor party in the general election can choose to do so by refraining from participating in the primary of one of the two major parties. If that person decides to risk defeat in a contested primary, however, he will need to take responsibility for his choice. Part of taking responsibility is accepting the restrictions that come with that choice.
A local Democratic political activist said over the weekend that he supports sore loser laws because they “keep what little remains regarding the meaning of party affiliation.” He is right. Once someone declares his affiliation with a political party for the purposes of a primary election, he should not be allowed to renounce that party for the sake of taking another shot at the office he desires.
Does this restrict the choices of the electorate in the general election? Strictly speaking, yes. But again, the failed candidate and his supporters can choose to bypass the primary completely and go directly to the general election as an independent. If he runs in the primary and loses, he can also try for another office or try again in the next election. Our choices are limited by our decisions all the time, and failed primary candidates should not be permitted to avoid the consequences of the choices they make.