Parties coalesce to make Saturday's congressional runoff Louisiana's last

Over the last three elections, December runoffs have become almost a rite of passage in tight Louisiana congressional races.

Over the last three elections, December runoffs have become almost a rite of passage in tight Louisiana congressional races.

Rep. Rodney Alexander (R) and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) won them in 2002, Reps. Charlie Melancon (D) and Charles Boustany Jr. (R) won them in 2004, and on Saturday, Democrat Karen Carter hopes to defeat embattled Rep. William Jefferson (D) and add her name to the list.

But thanks to a bill passed this year by the Louisiana state legislature, Carter’s bid to unseat the eight-term incumbent will be the last of its kind. The state is departing from its unpredictable nonpartisan open primary system in favor of more traditional closed primaries, allowing it to settle all of its congressional races on Election Day, just like the rest of the country. The change affects only federal races, not state and local ones.

Texas also has a runoff in the coming week, in which Democratic former Rep. Ciro Rodriguez will face Rep. Henry Bonilla (R). The state held a special open primary on Election Day because of a Supreme Court decision striking down the design of the 23rd District. Texas does not generally have December runoffs.

While many Washington lawmakers emphasize bipartisanship in the new Congress, Louisianans from both major parties agreed that a little more partisanship is what the state needs.

“It’s time to go back and bring the parties where they should be,” state Republican Party Chairman Roger Villere said.

The new system should increase the role of the state parties by pushing voters to choose in which primary they want to vote and crystallizing the contests, which have at times included more than a dozen candidates.

The parties, long weakened by the three-decades-old free-for-all primaries, negotiated the plan in the hopes that the state’s congressional races would be more substantial and easier for voters to decipher, Villere said.

Republicans expect a surge in party registration that would bring in conservative Democrats who have been voting Republican for years but haven’t had a reason to switch parties. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans more than two-to-one, but the state supported President Bush by double digits in each of the last two elections.

Both parties feel the change will help “build our party bases and our loyalists to help develop the party system in a better way in Louisiana,” Villere said. “It just hasn’t been done in 20 years.”

Melancon, who won his 2004 runoff by fewer than 500 votes — out of the more than 100,000 cast — said he has mixed feelings about the change but that it was important to get the process wrapped up in November.

Louisiana used to hold the primary prior to Election Day and the runoff, if necessary, on Election Day. But a 1997 Supreme Court decision determined that electing members before November was illegal and pushed the dates back.

Melancon said being the only state to carry the process into December created too much of a role for the national parties, which tend to be less scrupulous.

“It doesn’t make it a prettier scene,” he said. “It’s already a bad enough scene, I guess, when it’s just one opponent against the other.”

The format, which includes a September primary and an October primary runoff, could also encourage the parties to make sure their candidates win in September and avoid a late primary runoff, which would be the latest nominating date in the nation.

Former Gov. Edwin Edwards (D) actually created the current primary system for such a reason. With the Democratic Party far superior in state politics, he went through an arduous primary and primary runoff in 1972 while his Republican opponent skated.

Louisiana now has the nation’s last primary, which takes place in late September. Under the new system, if a candidate fails to emerge from the primary in early September with a majority of the vote, it would trigger a primary runoff on the first Saturday of October.

That would be two weeks after the next-to-last primary, Hawaii’s, which is on the second-to-last Saturday in September.

The new system should put a premium on parties getting their nominees early and avoiding a possible primary runoff, said Pearson Cross, a political science professor at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette.

“It’s the Edwin Edwards nightmare again,” Cross said. “Now both parties face that scenario, which is that one party can basically choose their candidate very early and then sit back and watch the race in which the two Democrats attack each other or the two Republicans attack each other.”

Louisiana is likely to have one of the top Senate contests in 2008, when Landrieu is up for a third term. She has needed the runoff in each of her previous bids, going on to garner 50 percent in 1996 and 52 percent in 2002.

At this point, Republicans don’t have a frontrunner, as Rep. Bobby Jindal (R) is likely to seek a rematch with Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D) in 2007. If one doesn’t emerge by September 2008, they could be faced with a month-long bid to unseat Landrieu after a tough and potentially costly Republican primary runoff.

But Louisiana politicians say the state has grown accustomed to short campaigns and multiple elections.

“People in Louisiana vote as many times and as often as you let them,” state Democratic Party Chairman Chris Whittington said.

The new system will provide plenty of opportunity for candidates to become known to the electorate, said newly minted Secretary of State Jay Dardenne (R), an up-and-coming former state senator who has been mentioned as a possible Landrieu challenger.

“We’re used to September-October elections around here; I don’t view that as a problem at all,” said Dardenne, who will run for a full term as Secretary of State in 2007 and leaves open the possibility of a Senate or other bid down the line.

Cross noted that the Republican Party in 2004 cleared the field for Sen. David Vitter (R), while several Democrats battled it out and were unable to bring the race to a runoff.

He also stressed the need for Republicans to get a consensus candidate under the new system if they want to defeat Melancon in his swing district, because Melancon is unlikely to draw a strong primary challenge.

The new system would also likely help Jefferson if he survives Saturday, because Republicans couldn’t vote for Carter in a primary, as they likely will Saturday.