And if any of you are Republicans, I'm OK with that.

Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Rahm Emanuel Wants Republicans to Vote

Francis Barry writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was director of public affairs and chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. He is the author of “The Scandal of Reform: The Grand Failures of New York City’s Political Crusaders and the Death of Nonpartisanship.”
Read More.
a | A

If Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel wins enough votes today to avoid a runoff election in April, he may owe a special thanks to a group he has spent much of his career antagonizing: Republicans.

It’s not often that we pay much attention to Republicans in Chicago. The city hasn't elected a Republican mayor since 1927. Its 50 city council members are all Democrats. And this year, the Republican Party didn't even bother to nominate a mayoral candidate to challenge Emanuel, who long looked vulnerable. It’s almost as hard to be a Republican voter in Chicago as it is to be a Cubs fan.

But it could be worse: Unlike in New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington, Republicans in Chicago are guaranteed the right to participate in the first round of voting, which is often the only one that matters. And today, the Emanuel campaign will be watching Republican enclaves -- small though they are -- closely.

Much of the recent media attention to the campaign has focused on Emanuel’s need to mobilize a black community that is less than thrilled with him. President Barack Obama visited a South Side campaign office last week to remind voters of his support for his old chief of staff. But if Emanuel wins re-election today, it may be Republicans who help push him over the top.

The latest citywide poll shows 45 percent of voters supporting Emanuel, the Democratic incumbent, while 20 percent support Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a Democratic county commissioner who is running to Emanuel’s left. The other three candidates -- two Democrats and one independent -- are in the single digits, with 18 percent of voters still undecided.  

If this election were being held in a city like New York where only party members can vote in primaries, Republicans would be prohibited from participating. Democrats would nominate either Emanuel or Garcia, who would then face the independent -- a frequent candidate polling at 2 percent -- in the general election. Republican voters would be left to rubber-stamp the Democratic nominee in the general election.

Chicago’s municipal elections, however, are structured around voters, not parties. All candidates for mayor appear on the same ballot, and all voters are eligible to participate. If no candidate wins a majority, a runoff is held between the top two finishers –- an outcome Emanuel is hoping to avoid.

This type of election, which is usually called a top two, nonpartisan or open primary, has long been used in three-quarters of large U.S. cities, and it is increasingly being seen as a way to counter extremism within the major parties. Last year, Senator Charles Schumer caused a stir by endorsing top two as a means of turning back the Tea Party tide.

When elections are decided in primaries open only to party members, the most ideological voters exercise outsize influence. And since nomination is often tantamount to election, incumbents have no incentive to govern from the middle. Schumer didn’t mention Emanuel, but he might as well have.

Whatever problems Republicans may have with “Rahmbo,” he has not been shy about bucking his party’s most powerful interest groups. He has taken on the teachers' union, lowered pension costs and cut the city workforce. Garcia, who has been endorsed by the teachers’ union and wants to eliminate mayoral control of schools, is running on a populist platform that channels Elizabeth Warren. For Republicans, it’s a clear choice between a moderate and a liberal.

In the growing debate over top two systems, each side can point to studies supporting its position. But the arguments are often academic in nature and disconnected from a critical democratic principle: All voters -- be they Republicans in Chicago or Democrats in Oklahoma City -- ought to have an equal opportunity to determine the outcome of an election.

When the polls close tonight, we’ll find out whether Chicago Republicans made the most of their opportunity.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Barry at fbarry5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net