"I liken it to people in church when the Baptist church is electing a pastor, it doesn't have Presbyterians, Methodists and Roman Catholics join in to say who they'd like as pastor of the Baptist church."- Lloyd Harsch, Republican State Committeeman and Associate Professor of Church History at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary
To quote one of the citizens of Rock Ridge from Blazing Saddles, “Who could argue with that?”.
One has to wonder if the reporter covering the Republican State Central Committee was on the verge of ecstasy while jotting that gem.
Unfortunately, this won’t be last time we hear that line or the Louisiana Republican Party’s decision to totally close the congressional primaries. And I can promise that the context that they will be brought up again won’t be positive.
Three years ago, the Louisiana legislature decided to complicate things for voters by reinstituting the closed primary only in congressional elections. The open (or “jungle” as it is often derisively termed by critics) primary, in which all candidates regardless of party would share the same ballot and would be voted on by the full electorate, would remain in place for all state and local contests.
For decades the Louisiana GOP was a phone booth operation in terms of registered voters and elected officials because of the political realities of the closed primary in which participation in the election that really mattered required one being a registered Democrat.
Then Governor Edwin Edwards decided to de-tusk the GOP of its one political advantage through the closed primary as Republican nominees would most of the time get a free pass to the general election while Democrats had to slug it out through an intensely competitive and expensive party primary.
The open primary forever retired the old Long versus anti-Long factions that served as Louisiana’s de facto two party system when the latter became registered Republicans. Instead of stymieing the Republican Party, Edwards christened and launched it, a move he has publicly regretted.
After enjoying the benefits of a non-partisan political environment that led to Republican legislators serving as committee chairmen and chamber leaders, the Republican Party officials have screamed the loudest about returning to the closed primary.
It is true that since its full implementation in 2008, the Republican Party has made substantial gains, now possessing an unprecedented 6-1 majority in the state’s US House of Representatives delegation, the result was largely crafted by unusual circumstances that are typically dismissed by party leaders, namely the election delay by Hurricane Gustav and the presence of a black candidate in the 6th district race as an independent.
New Second District Congressman Anh Cao had readily admitted that had his election against indicted incumbent had been held the same time Barack Obama was on the ballot, Jefferson, warts, frozen bills and all, would have been returned to Congress by a large margin. Cao also benefited from confusion amongst Jefferson’s base voters who were under the impression that the congressman had been returned to Washington after winning the runoff for the Democratic primary. And even with the scandals and misunderstanding, Jefferson lost by less than 3%.
Had black State Representative Michael Jackson, still disgruntled from losing his party nomination to Don Cazayoux earlier in 2008 in the special election for the 6th Congressional District, not played spoiler, Cazayoux would have been returned to Congress by a narrow margin as the white Democratic incumbent would have been assured of almost all of Jackson’s vote against a Republican.
And had the 4th District general election been held in November, Democrat Paul Carmouche would have benefited from the spike in black turnout in Shreveport but also not have faced a motivated Republican base determined not to give President-elect Obama an ally.
Without Gustav and Jackson acting as a spoiler, the closed primary produces a 4-3 Democratic majority.
Back to the closed primary and the GOP’s decision to restrict participation in it.
The bill bringing back the closed primary for congressional races had an interesting clause that would cause a great deal of complications as independents and voters not affiliated with a political party (those registered “no party”) would have the freedom to participate in either party primary unless the governing authorities of the parties chose to act against their participation.
The state GOP took the plunge first by passing a resolution barring anyone but Republicans; the state Democratic Party, logically enough, publicly welcomed independents and unaffiliated voters to their congressional primaries.
For Democrats, the move was a propaganda coup in contrast to the GOP’s position in addition to laying down the groundwork for an external moderating force within the party primary to temper the more extremist elements. Most importantly, it gave the Democrats a leg-up on pursuing independent voters in outreach and getting them to cast a vote for their candidates before the general election. Generally, when a voter supports someone in a primary, they are likely to vote for that candidate again in a runoff and/or general election.
It was a win-win-win for the Democrats yet the leadership of the state Republican Party was totally oblivious to what is obvious to many outside of that circle.
National Republican political operatives were dumbfounded by the Louisiana Republican Party’s move to post a “Keep Out” sign to Independents as were a number of in-state GOP elected officials. And there perhaps is the heart of the matter.
Individuals who have never won an election run the Louisiana Republican Party. By my count, the six elected officers of the party are a combined 0-8 in bids for statewide, congressional, regional, legislative and local elections.
I don’t say this to be insulting, as I personally respect and have a good working relationship with half of the leadership even when I have strong disagreements with them on party policy, but that not a single member of the party leadership has ever been elected to public office despite numerous tries does underscore the disconnect between what sounds good within the agreeable confines of a party committee meeting where rah-rah speeches are the norm and uncomfortable political reality.
I knew well in advance that the party that the attempt to lock into the party bylaws the ban on independent, which would require a 2/3s majority to adopt and a 2/3s majority to repeal, would easily pass in Shreveport, a bailiwick for the dominant faction and the furthest point away from the bloc of committee members less inclined to accept any proposal coming from the leadership as gospel. It should also be mentioned that the Louisiana GOP has a very generous proxy rule in which members could cast up to three votes in a meeting, with proxies counting towards quorum. The best chance for a true discussion on the matter of independents voting in the Republican congressional primary was for a “continuance” for another meeting closer to the population center of the state via failure to achieve a lack of quorum in Shreveport. And to the credit of the party leadership, they are talented at getting their loyalists (and proxies) lined up in advance.
Their arguments against letting independents vote in the congressional primaries are as follows: 1) the lock out will compel independents to register Republican, 2) it’ll drive down the cost of winning the GOP nomination by having to fight for fewer votes in the primary and 3) only Republicans should vote for a Republican nominee (see the “not letting Catholics vote for the Baptist minister” argument).
The counter-arguments to those points are as follows: 1) independents are part of the GOP’s “electoral” majority as no Republican can win statewide without them as the GOP is very much a minority party in terms of registration; furthermore, party registration does not improve ballot location or provide public funding; 2) if you don’t have the money to compete in a party primary then you don’t have the money to compete in a general election; keeping out independents removes the “reality check” of viability in terms of money and broader appeal; and just because independents won’t be voting in the GOP primary that doesn’t mean they won’t be participating in the other party’s, in other words, while Democrats are investing in winning registered independents months in advance of the general election, Republicans outreach to this critical bloc would not begin until 30 days or so before the general election; the party would be better off facing independent voters sooner than later 3) primaries should be about winning general elections; the “Baptist minister” analogy at the beginning is faulty because it assumes the candidate does not need to transcend the base; furthermore, Louisiana is not New Hampshire, registered independents here tend to be closer to Republicans than Democrats; most importantly they would likely move a Democrat more the right than move a Republican further to the left, thus producing a tougher Democrat for a Republican to run against.
In time the Louisiana Republican Party will come to regret the decision it made unless it thinks a 5% uptick in GOP statewide voter registration is preferable holding on to congressional seats that were largely won due to intra-party fighting on the Democratic side and mother nature. Party building and winning elections need not be separate enterprises, though with the “excommunication” of independents from the Republican congressional primary, it seems the state GOP has placed a greater importance on the former at the expense of the latter.