When political parties boot candidates for bad bona fides, it may strengthen the party, but it’s not a good look.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines ‘bona fide’ as ‘characterized by good faith and lack of fraud or deceit.’
But that’s what the Tennessee Republican Party has accused 26 candidates running for office of, or rather of not being: authentic Republicans. The result for those candidates in the coming months’ elections is their removal from ballots — 12 of them from the May 1 primary election for county offices and 14 from the Aug. 2 state primary ballot.
Michael Sullivan, executive director of the Tennessee GOP, says there’s nothing unusual about this year. “We haven’t had a year where we didn’t remove candidates from the ballot,” he says. “It’s not a huge uptick.”
Sullivan’s argument is that ensuring the party runs high-quality, loyal candidates strengthens the GOP brand.
“Having bona fides encourages people to get involved whether it’s volunteering in county parties or on campaigns,” Sullivan says. “It encourages active members and there’s an argument to be made you get stronger candidates.”
As an example, he cites the U.S. Senate race pitting former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen against Republican 7th District Congressman Marsha Blackburn. In that race, seven potential Republican challengers to Blackburn were pulled from the August primary ballot.
To gauge bona fides, the Tennessee GOP sets specific standards, which include that a candidate must have voted Republican in three of the past four primaries.
Amanda Yanchury, communications director for the Tennessee Democratic Party says Democrats also apply the bona fide test, but with more — and she says purposefully — subjectivity.
“County parties have more discretion to remove candidates from the ballot,” Yanchury says, while noting the TNDP has denied one candidate from running as a Democrat this year — former two-time U.S. Senate Candidate Mark Clayton.
Clayton received the Democratic nomination for Governor in 2014, but was disavowed by the TNDP after officials became aware he opposed many traditional Democratic views and was active in an anti-gay organization named a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Despite the numbers the TNGOP boots from ballots, one of the state’s most heated challenges came on the left in 2008, when then sitting State Sen. Rosalind Kurita’s election was overturned by the Tennessee Democratic Party Executive Committee.
The reason? She was the sole Senate Democrat to cross party lines in 2007 and vote to replace veteran Democratic Lt. Gov. John Wilder with Republican Ron Ramsey. When she beat her primary opponent by a mere 23 votes in 2008, the table was set for a challenge from the TNDP, one that eventually led to her filing — and losing — a lawsuit against the Democratic Party.
With either party, it’s short-sighted to have a purity test, says Kent Syler, professor of political science at Middle Tennessee State University and longtime chief of staff to former 6th District Congressman Bart Gordon, a Democrat.
“You begin to lose good candidates,” says Syler. “It contributes to a lot of the polarization we have now. If someone is running to make mischief, you have every right to deny them the right to run, but if someone is sincere about running, they should be able to run.”
Syler speculates Republicans can stand to lose more candidates now because with two legislative supermajorities, the party has an embarrassment of riches and many who want to run under the red flag.
He reminds that situations can change in the course of a few years, though and denying candidates the right to run as Republicans could result in defection to the other side.
“Not too long ago, the GOP was begging people to run, and many of those who did were past Democrats and were welcome,” says Syler. “If there weren’t people with Democratic pasts who had been willing to run as Republicans, we might not have a Republican supermajority now.”