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2014 scenarios should prompt end of blanket primary

For some time this space has argued that Louisiana not only should return to closed primaries for Congressional elections, but for all elections. In the wake of 2014 elections favoring Republicans in the state, other voices have joined in perhaps through surveying GOP wins that might have turned out differently that could not have if the blanket primary system had been junked.

Perhaps most strikingly, Republicans nearly threw away a safe seat on – and thus the effective majority on it – the Public Service Commission as the stealth candidate phenomenon came calling to its District 1 contest. In the general election, incumbent Eric Skrmetta polled only 37 percent of the all-Republican field, one point behind Forest Bradley Wright with the remainder of the vote but not enabling him to make the runoff going to perennial candidate Al Leone.

But Wright only two years earlier had run as a Democrat in a different district (there is no residency requirement for these), gaining just a fifth of the vote, and had not changed his hard left environmentalist agenda. However, enough voters in the heavily-conservative district became aware of this so that Skrmetta pulled out a win by about 4,000 votes in the runoff.

With closed primaries, where in its purest sense candidates of the same label run to win a primary election open only to party registrants for a spot on the general election ballot to compete with winners of other nomination contests and no-party entrants, a candidate can’t misappropriate a label and then try to fool enough of that label’s partisans that combines with the other party’s tacit support in order to get a win. The blanket primary in fact is not really a primary at all, but a general election where all voters may participate, with a runoff necessary only if no candidate received an absolute majority of ballots cast.

Had pure closed primaries been in effect (a relaxed version allows parties the option to let independent registrants participate, although a party decision only to let its registrants participate would create the same effect as a purely closed variety) for this race, Wright never would have close to leading or defeating Skrmetta in the first election with only Republicans voting. But as it was he almost leveraged the ambiguity into a win by facing the entire electorate, his liberal supporters included, in the first as well as second election.

A similar dynamic might have allowed the least-preferred GOP candidate in the Fifth Congressional District, current Rep. Vance McAllister, either to win there or, worse from the party’s perspective, would have let Monroe Mayor Jamie Mayo triumph. Prior to the general election, with several Republicans in the field but only Mayo as a Democrat, it was possible that the GOP candidates would have fragmented the vote enough that McAllister, whose personal comportment had embarrassed the party, did so further when he reneged on a promise not to run for reelection as a result of that comportment, and also was the least conservative of the Republican bunch, could make the runoff against Mayo, banking on his name recognition from incumbency to come out ahead of all other Republicans. Indeed, Democrats could have figured to cut their losses by abandoning Mayo for McAllister and then his Republican label plus their votes probably could have gotten McAllister reelected in the runoff.

But instead they stuck with Mayo and the GOP vote wasn’t so fragmented enough as to prevent a couple of Republicans from surpassing McAllister’s total, with the higher-ranked of them, Dr. Ralph Abraham, advancing to the runoff with Mayo and defeating him to become representative-elect. Yet, as the results showed, McAllister never would have had a chance to make it to a general election had he been forced to compete in a Republican-only primary, and like Wright use crossover votes in both elections to secure a runoff place and then a victory.

Finally, while Rep. Bill Cassidy won convincingly to deny Sen. Mary Landrieu reelection, a scenario could have unfolded where she could have held the seat for Democrats – as unpopular as she is – that would have been impossible under a closed primary system. This is because of the presence of another Republican in the contest, Rob Maness, who secured 14 percent of the vote in the general election. It appears that most Maness voters showed up and most of them voted for Cassidy in the runoff.

However, in politics one would rather win sooner than later, as the longer an election is dragged out, the more costly it becomes and the more risk is borne by the frontrunner, as Cassidy was for about a year. The more time is available, the more chance there is that luck can intervene significantly to the advantage of the underdog (bad luck for the underdog still means she loses, but bad luck for the frontrunner could reverse his position from winning to losing). Maness long before would have been wiped out in a party primary, and if to avoid that he had not run as a Republican he would have received significantly fewer votes under some other label or as a no-party candidate in the general election. In other words, in a scenario like this, the clearly stronger candidate of a party faced unnecessary risk by having the weaker prolong matters.

The Constitution requires Louisiana to have their runoffs after the national first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, so a date change to have the runoff during everybody else’s general election under current U.S. Supreme Court jurisdiction is impossible. And, from a practical perspective, this delay can prove disadvantageous to winners of federal runoff contests in terms of acquiring staff resources in Washington and even putting them at the end of the seniority line.

Even though there are other beneficial theoretical reasons for the political system as a whole to switch back to the closed primary system (which was used from 2008-10 for congressional elections and for all prior to 1975) and for contests at all levels, in particular the majority Republicans in the state should recognize how elections this fall where their preferred candidates won might have turned out differently because of the blanket primary system. With state elections looming too soon to make a change to apply immediately, it’s not too much to ask that they should use their majorities to have closed primaries universally in place for 2016 and beyond.

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