SADOW: Blanket/Jungle Primary System Is Terrible For Louisiana’s Parties

It almost certainly will fall on deaf ears, it almost certainly won’t work, and it almost certainly won’t matter, but the most consequential outcome from the two most prominent Republican candidates for Louisiana governor in 2019 calling for the party to rally around one candidate for 2023 will be to highlight the infirmity of the state’s blanket primary system of elections, especially from the perspective of the majority party.

This week, both Eddie Rispone, who narrowly lost to Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards in the 2019 runoff, and former Rep. Ralph Abraham, who narrowly trailed Rispone after the general election, called on the Republican State Central Committee to issue an endorsement of GOP Atty. Gen. Jeff Landry, the only formally announced candidate for 2023. The state’s system – technically not featuring a primary election because this doesn’t award a nomination into the general election but is the general election itself – has all candidates regardless of label run together without a formal nomination process that stamps an official party candidate.

The two other announced, but not formally so, Republican candidates for the top job, Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser and Treas. John Schroder, predictably thought little of the idea that they should step aside voluntarily. That’s no surprise: as snagging a runoff spot they think gives them a better-then-even chance of winning and especially against a Democrat if a quality candidate emerges from that party, why voluntarily surrender before a shot is fired?

Not that RSCC imprimaturs draw much water among voters. A solitary endorsement might suck in a few fairly inattentive voters who know they want a Republican but who have little interest in researching on their own which to choose and it might fling some undecided donor dollars towards the chosen son, but has little value otherwise. The value of a universal candidate comes from the willingness of others to desist from attacks their opposition within the party might use against the favored one – and they will, because that tactic works to deprive the object of votes – but that’s a decision they will make on their own, not at the behest of any party organ.

Only one thing can create an atmosphere where the majority party doesn’t have multiple competitors for the highest offices slugging it out up to the general election: a true primary system, perhaps closed (meaning only registrants or affiliates of the party may participate in that party’s primary; an open primary is one where a person regardless of party registration or affiliation may participate in one party’s primary). This puts all aspirants to the test, where they win or lose fair and square that exactly winnows the field without rely on voluntary desisting.

Further, although the 2019 election isn’t the best example because the real cause of Rispone’s loss wasn’t so much bitterness by some Abraham supporters but campaign ineptitude by Rispone, genuine primary systems in other states allow two to eight months for hard feelings to subside for a party to rally around a nominee. It’s just five weeks under the current Louisiana system when a runoff produces contenders from different parties, and, given constitutional jurisprudence for federal elections, to create an adequate cooling-off period would push runoffs into the next year for those contests.

Additionally, if the party endorses someone and then that endorsee fails to make the runoff at the expense of another candidate of the same label even if largely unaffiliated with the party, that weakens future candidates who adhere to the party’s agenda with more fidelity. The 1990 Senate race and 1995 gubernatorial contest stand as prime examples for the GOP.

An RSCC endorsement of Landry, as Rispone and Abraham want for the reason he’s running and running hard, might provide a small boost for Landry. But as long as the system can’t forestall other quality candidates from its party from contending in the general election, throwing support behind someone can’t do much to solidify partisan support behind a candidate in a manner that maximizes the effect. Only true party primary elections, and particularly closed ones, can achieve that, and if Louisiana prefers that benefit, its current blanket or jungle primary system cannot continue.

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