David Vitter's stunning primary victory in the race for United States Senate has sparked renewed cries to scrap Louisiana's unique "open primary" law. There's plenty wrong with our elections law, but you can't blame any of it on Vitter -- all he did was win. Our elections system has given Louisiana headaches and embarrassments for decades.
The law works this way: All candidates, regardless of party affiliation, qualify to run in the same "open" primary, which is the political equivalent of the TV show Survivor. Candidates shoot at one another, even those from the same party (sometimes, especially those from the same party), and voters determine who gets booted off the island. As in the TV show, winning requires the right combination of ruthlessness, cunning and savagery.
If no one gets 50 percent plus one vote in the primary, the top two finishers face each other in a runoff -- regardless of party affiliation. Thus, it's possible for two Democrats or two Republicans to face each other in a runoff. Indeed, that has happened both statewide and in local contests.
This election season, we saw the Survivor effect when candidates for Congress and the U.S. Senate attacked other candidates from the same party, even though candidates from opposing parties were on the same ballot. John Kennedy and Chris John, both Democrats, slugged it out in the Senate race, which helped Vitter win in the primary. In the Third District race for Congress, Republicans Billy Tauzin III and Craig Romero beat each other up so badly that Romero refuses to support his fellow Republican in the runoff against Democrat Charlie Melancon. So much for party unity.
In addition to breaking down the significance of political parties, the law tends to reward "extremist" candidates -- from the far right as well as the far left -- at the expense of moderates and mainstreamers in both parties. Examples are easy to find, but none is more glaring than the "runoff from hell" in the governor's race of 1991.
In that year's gubernatorial primary, Edwin Edwards and David Duke edged out incumbent Gov. Buddy Roemer to give voters the unenviable task of choosing between a known crook and a known Nazi (who later turned out to be a crook as well). That race should have given us all the prodding we needed to change the law, except that the folks in a position to make such a change -- Edwards and state lawmakers -- all got their jobs as a result of the law.
EWE benefited more than anyone else from the open primary system. In fact, it was he who gave us the system in the first place -- all to suit his own political ends. Back in 1971, when he was first elected governor, Edwards had to fight his way through a crowded Democratic field to face fellow Democrat J. Bennett Johnston in the party's runoff. Then, after a bruising and costly runoff, he had to face Republican Dave Treen in the general election. In contrast to EWE's white-knuckle path to the general election, Treen's GOP waltz was a gentlemanly affair. Edwards resented that and vowed he would never again have to endure three tough elections just to be able to plunder the state.
He got his wish -- three more times, in fact. He won outright in the 1975 primary, and again in 1983. Then, in 1991, he used the polarizing effect to get into the runoff against Duke and won again. For Edwards, the system has worked exactly as intended.
Meanwhile, the breakdown in party discipline -- the source of a party's effectiveness -- has hurt Democrats and Republicans alike. In the 1996 U.S. Senate race, Republicans couldn't unite behind one candidate. As a result, we almost had a runoff between two Democrats; Mary Landrieu ultimately won. In this year's Senate contest, the Democrats couldn't get their act together, and Vitter won in the primary. Many in both parties believe that if Louisiana went back to separate party primaries -- whether "open" or "closed" -- we would see more runoffs between "mainstream" candidates and fewer featuring those from the extremes. But don't expect things to change. Remember, those who must vote to cancel Survivor: Louisiana Elections are the same folks who played the game and won. As far as they're concerned, nothing on the island is broken.