Last Saturday's runoff election in Louisiana's Second Congressional District was the last application of our state's unique open primary system in federal elections in the state. Going forward, federal elections will have separate Republican and Democratic primaries -- much like things were 30 years ago. That's a sea change.
Saturday may well have been Bill Jefferson's last gasp as well. This column is being written the day before the election, so my analysis cannot account for the election's outcome.
This much I can say, however:
• If Jefferson has won the election, he should thank Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee. Profusely. In fact, he should prostrate himself before Lee and kiss the ground Lee stands on. Lee, as we all know, was so piqued at state Rep. Karen Carter's comments in Spike Lee's film, When the Levees Broke, that he spent $13,000 of his campaign war chest to tell white Jefferson Parish voters to stay home -- just to send a message to Carter. Keeping white voters home was Bill Jefferson's only hope of winning the runoff, but Jefferson is not exactly the guy white folks look to for political cues. Lee, on the other hand, may have been the only politician who could deliver that message with any effect. If nothing else, the sheriff made the runoff very interesting.
• If Jefferson has lost, it may well be the result of the open primary system, which put him into a general election against a fellow black Democrat instead of a white Republican. Ironically, Jefferson got his start in Louisiana politics by winning a state Senate seat in 1979, in the first statewide elections held under the open primary system. Had the "new rules" applied to this contest, Jefferson very well could have won the Democratic nomination, and chances are even better that he would have beaten a white Republican in a head-to-head contest last Saturday.
• If Carter has won the election, she should thank Edwin Edwards, the father of Louisiana's open primary system. Edwards designed the system for purely selfish reasons -- he didn't want to have to scratch and claw his way through a Democratic primary and runoff, only to face a fresh-faced (and freshly financed) Republican in the general election. Ironically, the open primary system did more to build the Louisiana Republican Party than Ronald Reagan, because suddenly anybody could vote for Republicans any time. In the unique political environs of post-Katrina New Orleans, that system allowed thousands of white Democrats, Republicans and independents to vote against Jefferson by supporting Carter, giving her just enough votes to slip past state Sen. Derrick Shepherd and land a runoff berth against Jefferson.
• If Carter has lost the election, she should take it up with the Lee twins, Spike and Harry.
To fully grasp how different things will be in future federal elections, consider how different they might have been had Louisiana used separate primaries in this contest.
Under the open primary system, everybody could vote for any candidate, regardless of party. That meant all 383,000 voters in the Second District could choose between Jefferson, his nine Democratic opponents and his three Republican challengers. District-wide, blacks account for 62 percent of the vote; whites and "others" (mostly Hispanics and Asians) account for 38 percent.
However, had there been a separate (and closed) Democratic primary, and had the top three candidates garnered the same shares of black and white votes that they won in the Nov. 7 primary, the results would have looked like this:
Bill Jefferson, 35.1 percent
State Sen. Derrick Shepherd, 18.7 percent
Karen Carter, 18.2 percent.
Those results are based on a post-primary analysis of votes by race done by Carter's campaign consultant, Gregory Rigamer. The math and analysis under separate primaries are mine.
Why are the results so different?
Because when voters are separated by party, as they will be going forward, the ratio of blacks to whites/others in the Democrat Party rises to 75/25 -- from 62/38 district-wide. Given Jefferson's overwhelming strength among black voters, and Carter's base among whites, she would not have made a Democratic runoff against Jefferson, who got 57 percent of the black vote in the primary.
It just goes to show, sometimes the rules make all the difference in the outcome of the game.