Wednesday, July 21, 2010
Written by Jeremy Alford
This will be Louisiana’s final year of conducting closed party primaries, and the coming send-off promises a wild transition back to our jungle roots.
Political folks used to like to refer to Louisiana’s open primary elections for federal offices as “jungle primaries” because candidates of all stripes were packed together on a single ballot and forced to fight it out: Republicans against Libertarians, Democrats against Green Party members, communists against Catholics. You name it, and our politics have probably played host to it at one point or another.
Then came the Big Change. The Legislature decided to shutter Louisiana’s open primary system in 2006 for those seeking seats in the U.S. House and Senate. By 2008, we had officially joined a majority of other states by participating in closed primaries for all of Louisiana’s federal elections. Now, two years later, the Legislature has reversed course. State lawmakers believe the old way of making politics is better than the new one.
That’s in direct contrast to Louisiana’s federal lawmakers, who argue that open primaries typically send them to the Hill too late in the year, long after all of the choice committee assignments have been doled out and during a time when only makeshift closets are available for office space. It was all about the perks; the perks sealed the deal. But just like with redistricting, state lawmakers are better positioned to weigh in on the matter.
As such, beginning in 2011, Louisiana’s federal elections will be fought out in open primaries once again. That means every electable sap in one place for a November general election and then the two top toughies go nose-to-nose in December. Rep. Hunter Greene, R-Baton Rouge, the author of the enabling Act 570, says the swap will save taxpayers $6.5 million every two years. “It will save some money and solve some voter confusion,” Greene says. “I think running on your merit, rather than putting a letter behind your name, is the best way to do it.”
The system in place right now is overly complicated compared to an open primary system, and voters have experienced somewhat of a learning curve. There will be party-specific primaries in August and primary runoffs from those contests in October. The top vote-getters from each primary will then trade insults leading up to a November election alongside all of the candidates who chose not to run with a state-recognized party or in many instances no party at all. “We have a semi-closed situation,” says Secretary of State Jay Dardenne.
Here’s the glitch: The current law governing closed primaries allows state-recognized parties to decide who can vote in their elections. When it comes to the Republican and Democratic parties, they have selected different rules — only Republicans can vote in GOP primaries, while Dems and non-party voters can cast ballots in Democratic primaries. That autonomy has been upheld by the courts, no matter how much it confuses voters. “The public doesn’t understand why they’re told they can vote in one and not vote in the other,” Dardenne says.
So, like 20 other U.S. states, Louisiana is reverting to jungle primaries for federal elections. But before that happens, there’s this fall to contend with, and the closed primary system could make for some interesting theater. For example, up until the last few days, the buzz incasing the GOP side of Louisiana’s Senate contest consisted almost entirely of hopes that David Vitter of Metairie could hold strong to his incumbency. But now there’s another conservative name on the fall ballot who’s drawing down headlines nationally and regionally.
Former state Supreme Court Justice Chet Traylor of Monroe came out of nowhere about two weeks ago to qualify for the Republican primary. He can make a quick and seamless grab for portions of Vitter’s Christian-conservative base. He’s an Army veteran, card-carrying member of the National Rifle Association and the author of the Supreme Court’s 2000 opinion upholding the state’s sodomy laws.
If that wasn’t enough, Traylor is telling reporters that he’s running due to Vitter’s past misadventures, including connections to a D.C. prostitution ring and a more recent controversy involving a former aide who stabbed a woman and built up a substantial criminal history while on the senator’s staff. As a Monroe resident and former assistant district attorney in Franklin Parish, Traylor may also be able to carve into Vitter’s all-important base of support in north Louisiana.
On the Democratic side of the Senate race, all eyes and ears have been tuned to the upstart campaign of U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon of Napoleonville, but even he faces a different set of challenges following last week’s round of qualifying. While Melancon faces only token opposition in the August Democratic primary, there’s a wildcard on the November general election ballot in the form of state Rep. Ernest Wooton of Belle Chasse.
In fact, wildcard is the perfect description for this former Plaquemines Parish sheriff who has a reputation in the Legislature for saying whatever might be on his mind. In the absence of any other real sideshow, like the potential and now-defunct campaign of adult film star Stormy Daniels, Wooton’s loose lips could draw some interest depending on how far he takes his bid — he said last week he’s running due to the oil crisis in the Gulf of Mexico.
But more important, Wooton could shave points off Melancon’s tally in southeast Louisiana. While Melancon has had to work overtime to capture the support of parishes like Plaquemines and St. Bernard, which he lost in his first congressional election in 2004, the coastal parishes could be up for grabs. Wooton’s House district also once encompassed portions of Lafourche Parish.
In the 3rd Congressional District, which includes portions of Acadiana and is the seat being vacated by Melancon, the closed primary system has already produced a winner. Houma attorney Ravi Sangisetty, a pro-life Democrat, was the only Dem to qualify two weeks ago. He accepted the nomination in a press release. “I entered this race last September, and today I am one step closer to having the privilege of representing this district in Washington,” he says. The honor would have not been bestowed upon the political rookie had it not been for the closed primary system.
Even though Sangisetty has a cool half mill in his campaign kitty, the GOP primary will probably yield the early favorite for November’s general election. Former House Speaker Hunt Downer of Houma and New Iberia attorney Jeff Landry lead the pack, with oil field manager Kristian Magar participating in the primary as well.
Depending on how the closed primary races go in August, a runoff in any of the races could end up on the same October ballot as the lieutenant governor’s election, which is an open primary. In theory, you could have a slew of high-profile races drawing voters to the polls only to find out that some elections are open while others are closed. Granted, it’s a learning process, but it’s a process that will be totally revamped — again — in just a few months’ time.
When Dardenne explained this possibility to lawmakers during the recent regular session, he told them it could potentially make the process even more confusing. So stay tuned and pay attention, because the voter response from 2008’s closed primary experiment is expected to make a comeback shortly. “It will continue this fall,” Dardenne says of the confusion.
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