Despite opposition from both the state Democrat and Republican parties, Gov. Bobby Jindal signed House Bill 292 into law yesterday. The bill would return Louisiana’s federal elections to the same jungle primary system the statewide races operate within.
This is terrible legislation, and a terrible move by the Governor. And we’re likely to regret it.
Rep. Hunter Greene (R-Baton Rouge), who authored the bill, boasts that by moving from a system including party primaries in August, party runoffs in October and a general election in November to a jungle primary and a runoff the state can save some $13 million in each Congressional cycle.
And he’s probably right. But if running elections on the cheap gets crappy candidates elected, do you come out ahead?
Was Louisiana better off with a jungle primary in 1991, when the crook Edwin Edwards rode the black vote into the runoff against the Klansman David Duke, who carried disaffected whites in numbers large enough to overcome the moderate incumbent governor Buddy Roemer? Don’t think so.
And in 1995, did the jungle primary benefit Louisiana when Mike Foster and Cleo Fields ended up in a runoff? Foster clobbered Fields with better than 60 percent of the vote, but many Louisianians felt they were being forced to choose between the lesser of evils.
In 2003, did the jungle primary benefit Louisiana when Kathleen Blanco nosed past Richard Ieyoub to secure a runoff spot against Bobby Jindal? Many think Blanco’s runoff space came about due to Buddy Leach entering the race and siphoning (buying) votes away from Ieyoub in Orleans Parish. Could that have happened in a party primary? Perhaps, but not in one with a runoff. The state certainly didn’t seem to benefit from Blanco’s leadership when Katrina hit in 2005.
In 2007, did the jungle primary help to generate a quality Democrat opponent for Jindal? He was virtually unopposed. In a state with better than 50 percent of its citizens registered as Democrats the best the party could do was serial candidate “Bananas” Foster Campbell and GOP turncoat Walter Boasso. Jindal might be a better governor than those mentioned above, but the lack of legitimate Democrat opposition hasn’t helped him. If the Democrats had a party primary in 2003, it’s entirely possible a little-known but attractive candidate might have performed well in the primaries, created some name recognition and, if not actually winning, become of sufficient stature to “keep Jindal honest” and give him a real threat in 2011.
So the jungle primary has served Louisiana very poorly in its gubernatorial elections. The same analysis could be applied down the ballot as well. Jungle primaries reward candidates who play to the extremes, like Duke or Fields, because the moderating influence of “electability” doesn’t enter into the mix like it does in a party primary. A party primary in 1991 would never have resulted in Duke beating Roemer; if there weren’t enough Republicans willing to defeat Duke a torrent of independents and Democrats would likely have registered as Republicans to vote against him.
Jungle primaries also reward incumbents, Roemer notwithstanding. Unless incumbents are criminals like Edwards or thorough incompetents like Blanco (both were so poisonous at the end of their respective last terms in office that no one took them seriously as candidates), they possess an almost insurmountable advantage in name recognition and money. Challengers are forced to stake out a narrow position in the political marketplace, attempt to ride that 8-10 percent into a 15-18 percent showing at the polls in a crowded race and get into second – then hope that their small-time campaign has enough traction to unseat an incumbent who might be of the same political party. Stalking horses like Leach in 2003 are common practice, and shenanigans like Foster buying Duke’s donor list in 2005 in an attempt to position himself as a far-right candidate (he was a registered Democrat until he filed for the race) are the norm.
Do party primaries have their faults? Of course they do. Party primaries generally favor establishment candidates, and insurgents will struggle more often than not to collect the resources needed to knock off a candidate the party bosses anoint. But it can and does happen, because the bosses are often out of touch with the grass-roots membership of the party. We’re seeing it happen all over the country this year. Mike Lee unseated two establishment candidates on the Republican side in Utah. Nikki Haley came out of nowhere to knock off a lieutenant governor, a state attorney general and a sitting congressman to win the GOP gubernatorial primary in South Carolina. Also in South Carolina, unknown Alvin Greene earned the Democrat nomination for a senate run against Jim DeMint. Joe Sestak defied the odds and beat Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania. And so on. It’s happening on both sides of the aisle.
Party primaries and runoffs also make for better candidates. In 2003, had Jindal been forced to run a race against Hunt Downer, he would still likely have won. But at least Downer could have beaten him up a little and forced him to sharpen his skills and his organization. Jindal’s general election campaign against Blanco was nothing short of horrible, and he frittered away a sizable lead in the process. As a current example, Louisiana’s 2nd District race is currently in a party primary with Cedric Richmond and Juan LaFonta on the Democrat side. In a heavily-Democrat district it’s going to require a sizable chunk of that district’s voters for one of those two to win; maybe as much as 35 percent of the total electorate. That means a good campaign which appeals to lots of folks, not some tiny sliver of the electorate just bigger than somebody else’s tiny sliver. And because that fight will be a hard one, the voters are going to get a chance to vet both Richmond and LaFonta before they take on Joseph Cao.
Compare that to the 2nd District race in 2006, in which Dollar Bill Jefferson managed to get into the runoff in a 13-candidate jungle primary with 30 percent of the vote and then beat Karen Carter Peterson (who placed second with 22 percent) 57-43 in the runoff. That jungle primary saved Louisiana money, but it put a crook back in Washington and ultimately embarrassed the state. When a party primary came to life in 2008, the voters of the district were actually able to get Jefferson out of there.
It’s true that California is moving to a jungle primary system, but at this point California is the last state in the country anyone should want to emulate. And Louisiana’s experience with the jungle primary has been anything but a good one. Returning to it in 2012 with its congressional elections is a bad idea foisted on us by politicians from both parties who might want to run for Congress; we’ll regret it.