What Turco’s primary victory tells us

How a Trump supporter won a Democratic primary

JEFFREY ROSARIO TURCO, who was described by the Boston Globe’s Yvonne Abraham as “an anti-choice, transphobic, border-wall-loving Trumper,” won the March 2 Democratic Primary for the vacant state representative seat from Winthrop and Revere. Turco gathered 36 percent of the vote to defeat three other Democrats in that primary.

A candidate, who proudly posted to his Facebook account that he voted for Donald Trump in 2016, wins a Democratic primary with 36 percent of the vote? Of course, this brings out another chorus of folks crying over the defeat of the ranked choice voting ballot question in 2020. Would ranked choice have prevented this unhappy result? Maybe, but another round of ranked choice debate diverts us from the major structural flaw in the way we conduct primary elections in Massachusetts.

The structural problem with the March 2 primary is that it eliminated three Democrats, and the voters of the district will be presented with a March 30 special election ballot containing a Democrat for Trump, an actual Republican, and an unenrolled candidate.

To understand why this happened, we need to understand some underlying Massachusetts mathematics. At the time of the 2020 elections, there were only 476,480 enrolled Republicans. When the 2020 ballots were counted, Donald Trump received 1,167,202 votes and GOP Senate candidate Kevin O’Connor received 1,177,765 votes. The math reveals there are substantially more unenrolled voters supporting Republican candidates than there are enrolled Republicans.

There are almost no incentives for Republican-leaning voters to enroll as a Republicans. In most of the state, the Republican Party is not a viable political organization, and elections are often decided in the Democratic primary. Enrolled Republicans are excluded from the Democratic primary, which is often the event that decides the election. Republican-leaning unenrolled voters can choose to participate in a Republican primary on the rare occasion it is a contested race, but they are free to choose to participate in Democratic primaries as well.

Returning to the special election in Winthrop and Revere, Paul A. Caruccio was uncontested in the Republican primary and had a free pass to Election Day. Enrolled Republicans found only one name on their primary ballot. Unenrolled voters who lean Republican did not need to make a primary choice between Caruccio and Turco. They could avoid the uncontested Republican primary, and were free to take a Democratic primary ballot to support Turco. Democrats who didn’t want a Trump voter to represent them split their votes and eliminated the three mainstream Democrats on primary day.

The vestigial Republican party, which has turned Massachusetts into a 1.5 party state, has created the dynamic of Republican-leaning unenrolled voters selecting a Trump supporter in a Democratic primary. Unless Republicans are able to become a more vibrant party with meaningful primaries, candidates will continue to win Democratic primaries by attracting Republican-leaning unenrolled voters, prevailing over more mainstream Democrats who are eliminated from contention before the general election ballots are printed.

The solution is simple, and is successfully employed in California, Louisiana, and the state of Washington. A blanket, non-partisan top-two primary lets every voter participate in selecting the two strongest candidates to advance to the general election. In the case of the Winthrop-Revere House race, chances are only one of the candidates attracting Republican-leaning voters would have advanced from the primary to the special election, as would one of the more mainstream Democrats.

A top two primary would also eliminate uncontested general elections when the only candidates are running as Democrats. Instead of advancing only one candidate out of a Democratic primary, the two strongest candidates would move forward to a competitive general election.

A top two blanket primary would have an impact on the races that have been the poster children for ranked choice voting. Last year’s Democratic primary for the Fourth Congressional District advanced Jake Auchincloss, who was viewed as the most conservative candidate in a field of nine, with 22 percent of the primary vote. He defeated an uncompetitive Republican in November by 20 points. Similarly, Lori Trahan won 22 percent of the vote in a 10-candidate primary in 2018, and won the Third Congressional District seat with a 28.5-point margin over her Republican opponent. In both cases, it is unlikely that an uncompetitive Republican would have placed second in a top-two primary, and voters would have had a meaningful choice in November.

Meet the Author

Paul Schlichtman

Town Meeting, School Committee, Democratic Town Committee, Arlington
Top two non-partisan primaries present the best chance of advancing two strong candidates who best reflect the voters of their district. If voters don’t want Democrats who support Trump running against Republicans, Democrats running against token Republicans, or uncontested races where one party dominates the landscape, a top-two primary provides the best solution to our flawed primary system.

Paul Schlichtman is an 18-year member of the Arlington Democratic Town Committee, and an elected Town Meeting member and School Committee member in Arlington.