Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Exorcising Open Primary Superstitions

With the stroke of his pen, Governor Bobby Jindal will bring to an end Louisiana’s two-election cycle experiment with closed congressional primary.

State party leaders on both sides of the ideological spectrum and sitting members of Congress (for good reason…at least for them) argued for retaining the system; legislators seeking to close a gaping fiscal hole in the state’s finances viewed the closed primary as a luxury expense the state could ill afford.

Two points of contention critics of the unique Louisiana electoral system usually cite was its deadbeat father (Democratic Governor Edwin Edwards) and the election that two decades later resulted in his fourth term as governor.

Addressing the first point, it matters less who its initial champion was then how the change played out.

Back in the early 70s, Edwards intended to concoct a formula to somehow make the Republican Party less relevant in state elections though his gambit backfired.

Even from behind prison bars, the governor who sired the open primary claims the move was one of his biggest regrets in politics as the open primary contributed to the growth of the Republican Party in Louisiana.

The main argument cited by those opposed to the open primary is that it produced the “Race from Hell”, AKA the 1991 gubernatorial runoff between Edwards and ex-Klan leader and state representative David Duke.

But that claim is not only flawed, it’s a cop out for the electorate and the political parties that set the scene.

Duke and Edwards did not appear in the general election via spontaneous combustion; the voters, not the open primary, put them there.

Most people forget that Kathleen Blanco’s first bid for governor was in 1991 when she offered herself as an alternative to the controversial Edwards; she gained no traction and droped out leaving Edwards with a monopoly on the Democratic side, thus assured of a spot in the runoff.

On the Republican end, state party leaders manufactured Congressman Clyde Holloway’s candidacy as the conservative alternative to what was only the second governor to be affiliated with the GOP since Reconstruction.

If the Democratic establishment could be rightfully accused of being content being represented by default by a man many Louisianans viewed as the mascot of all that is flamboyant and unflattering about Louisiana politics then the Republicans were guilty of engaging in a sloppy political seppuku by scorning a gift personally wrapped by no less of a party figure than President George H. W. Bush.

It was one of those instances, none to rare, where the state GOP swapped the elephant silhouette with the image of Wile E. Coyote as its logo.

But the target of their Acme scheming didn’t help his own cause either as there’s no guarantee that Governor Buddy Roemer would have won the GOP nomination that year in a closed primary, especially since much of his support in the open primary came from pro-reform white liberals.

The clumsy manner in which the governor conducted his party switch, the poor salesmanship of his rejected tax reform plan, stormy relations with the legislature and most importantly his vetoing of anti-abortion legislation had far more to do with his third place finish than the “system”.

Had Roemer just let the proposed abortion restrictions become law without his signature, the fissure within the party would not have been as severe and his re-election would have been academic.

Ironically it was the open primary that paved the way for the politically moderate Roemer to ascend to the governor’s mansion in 1987. A close primary would have produced a match between Edwards and Republican Congressman Bob Livingston.

If anything, closed primaries, especially under the schematic that was just scrapped, was more likely to produce a polarizing general election, as Republicans unwisely blocked registered Independents and unaffiliated voters from participating in theirs while the Democratic electorate is heavily weighted with black voters.

There were other devils in the details of the abandoned closed primary, one in particular being that the party primaries are held in late August, the peak of hurricane season. This year’s, which will be the final run of the closed primary, will be conducted the day before the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

Two years ago, state elections had to be postponed when Hurricane Gustav delayed the primaries a month, resulting in December general elections in the Second and Fourth congressional districts.

But even if meteorological events were not factors, primaries held on the heels of the general election unfairly favor incumbents (i.e. the reason the congressional delegation was satisfied keeping things as they were).

Assuming a primary goes to a second ballot, the party nominee challenging an incumbent (likely renominated without opposition) starts what is roughly a month-long general election period without money and with a fractured base.

This is precisely what almost cost the Louisiana GOP the vacant Fourth Congressional District, which had been held by the Republican Party since 1988. Only the rock-ribbed conservative First District (Jefferson-Saint Tammny) has been occupied longer by Republicans.

And, in the event Governor Jindal does not make a bid for the US Senate in 2014, a contentious primary battle under the existing closed primary rules would make unseating Democrat Mary Landrieu a formidable, if not impossible task, as the incumbent could sit on a six-year old warchest while her opponent would have to financially start from square one a mere thirty days before election day.

Yet the Louisiana Republican Party stood by- correction- implored legislators to retain a recipe for disaster in the event Landrieu seeks re-election.

With the open primary, Landrieu will have to spend her campaign money the same time as everyone else does, which is precisely why then-Elections Commissioner Suzie Terrell came within a hair of upsetting the incumbent in 2002.

When the closed primary became reality, there was no stampede to Voter Registration offices by conservatives who retained Democratic or Independent affiliations to join the Republican Party.

State GOP leaders were befuddled by the difference between a registered Republican and a Republican voter; the former makes for a good statistic but the latter is more valuable as they’re the ones who put Republicans in public office, regardless of what their file card with the Registrar of Voters office says they are. Some states don’t even have party registration.

The closed primary was a bonanza only for political consultants, who got to receive checks from as many as three elections in lieu of the maximum of two under the open primary while costing the state treasury an additional $6,000,000 per cycle.

Finally there is the most disagreeable part of the closed primary: a majority didn’t necessarily rule.

A candidate only needed to secure a plurality, which opened the gates to qualifying “reindeer games” as dummy, shill or spoiler candidates could (and did) play kingmaker.

Just because Louisiana’s election system is different from most of the other states doesn’t necessarily make us behind the times; it could make us pioneers for embracing a better and more economical way of practicing democracy.