Anh Cao’s unlikely election to Congress from the black-majority Second District was made possible due to the perfect alignment of an obscure legislative act, a hurricane (not the one you’re thinking of) and a slew of indictments against incumbent US Representative Bill Jefferson.
Louisiana’s return to the closed primary for federal races would be relevant for Cao in four ways: 1) it allowed for three elections (party primary, party primary runoff if needed and the general election) instead of the maximum of two under the open primary (primary and runoff only if a candidate failed to attain a majority); 2) the timing established for the primary and runoff was set for the peak of hurricane season in Louisiana; 3) registered Republicans would be barred from voting until the general election; 4) federal candidates in a general election only need to win a plurality in the general election not a majority.
The main reason why Louisiana adopted the open primary back in the seventies had to do with Governor Edwin Edwards’s self-serving attempt to deny Republican candidates a strategic advantage over their Democratic opponents in general elections.
Since Republican registration in Louisiana was miniscule back the in seventies (and is currently less than 33% of the total today), Republican primaries, on those rare occasions when they did occur, were one-sided affairs as the favorite would coast straight to the general election. Democrats on the other hand, had to engage in an expensive and schismatic intraparty fight through a primary and runoff before facing a fresh and well-financed Republican candidate.
Edwards figured that by making the Republican candidate compete with the Democrats on the same ballot, the open primary could potentially eliminate a GOP candidate from making a runoff while at a minimum making the Republican have to spend his money at the same time so in the case of a Republican-Democrat runoff, both candidates would theoretically start from scratch financially.
Edwards would later come to regret the open primary, which led to a jump in Republican voter registrations and the election of registered Republicans to offices across the state. For his role in the abolition of the closed primary, Edwards would be facetiously known as the Father of the Louisiana GOP.
Edwards’s fears from his turbulent experience in 1971 would finally play out in 2008 as Jefferson entered the general election cash-strapped from two competitive primary races, legal expenses stemming from his corruption trial and suffering from a national Democratic financial blockade on his campaign.
Cao, who was unopposed as the GOP candidate, was able to sit on his limited resources until after the presidential election, which was the same day as the Democratic runoff for the party nod.
Secondly, for whatever reason, the framers of the legislation returning the state to the closed primary in federal races decided to cram the party primaries immediately behind the November general election.
Obviously incumbents reap an advantage from the date positioning since they rarely face significant opposition within their own party while the challenging party might have a divisive scrum between two or more competitive candidates, burdening them with having to unite their side and refill their campaign coffers virtually over night.
Jefferson’s vulnerability due to his trial and the information that has trickled from the investigation made the Democratic primary for all practical purposes an open seat.
The original date of the general election favored Jefferson, since it would be held the same time Obama would be on the ballot, allowing him to ride his party’s presidential candidate’s considerable coattails in the black majority second district.
Jefferson’s problem was that it didn’t seem too certain he would be the person occupying the Democratic Party’s slot on the general election ballot. Jefferson faced six challengers, five of whom possessed either a strong geographic voter base, money and/or name recognition. A low voter turnout primary could be fatal for a scandal-tainted incumbent clinging on to little else than name recognition.
And then Hurricane Gustav saved Jefferson’s political career for the time being. At least for the moment it seemed that way.
The delay in the primaries allowed Jefferson to get what he needed in the primary and would face a white opponent the same day black vote was going to peak while precluding anti-Jefferson Republican voters. Jefferson’s 14-point win against former television newscaster Helena Moreno in November meant there was only one more hurdle to clear before being freed up to concentrate his energies on his trial (rebuilding New Orleans de damned!).
When the machines closed on December 6th, Cao received more votes than Jefferson, though the Republican did not receive a majority but a plurality of 49.5%. Under the open primary rule (and that of Georgia’s closed primary/general election), there would be yet another election. Thanks to the closed primary, New Orleans now as a Republican congressman.
It should also be noted that Green Party candidate Malik Rahim 2.8%, which was in excess of the margin between Cao and Jefferson, so it would seem that the Nader Raiders had struck again though I don’t think mainstream Democrats will complain much this time.
Had the election schedule not been altered, there is a good chance would have won Moreno her party’s nomination and would have scored no worse than 75% against Cao on the same day John McCain garnered an anemic 19% in Orleans Parish. How ironic that Hurricane Gustav, the same storm that pushed back the congressional primaries and pushed storm water into Cao’s home in New Orleans East in September would also sweep him into Congress in December.