Closed party primary debate dividing Louisiana GOP

Louisiana’s Republican leaders are sharply at odds over whether and how the state should redesign its primary elections, a resurfacing disagreement driven by political ideology that could have significant sway in future election victories.

The divide over whether to return to closed party primaries for some or most elections is drawing particular interest because Republicans weighing in on the issue are possible contenders for governor and other statewide offices in 2023. The type of primary election in place could help determine how those bids for office fare.

Lawmakers will decide whether they want to change Louisiana’s election system in the legislative session that starts April 12.

Officials in both the Democratic and Republican parties are pushing the idea of a closed party primary, at least for congressional races—where candidates from each political party run against one another and the top vote-getter from each party advances to a general election.

But the drive appears to be stronger among some within the GOP.

Attorney General Jeff Landry, a conservative Republican eyeing a bid for governor, indicated he supports closed primaries for congressional, statewide and legislative races. State Senate GOP leader Sharon Hewitt, another possible gubernatorial contender, wants to start closed primaries with congressional races. Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, a moderate Republican seen as one of Landry’s chief competitors for governor, opposes closed primaries entirely.

“I just believe that something that’s not broke, why fix it?” Nungesser told a task force reviewing the issue.  

Louisiana’s current open primary system has been in place since 1975, with the exception of a three-year span for congressional elections.

Closed primaries are seen as favoring more ideologically driven candidates over moderates because party loyalists would sift among the contenders and advance one to a general election. In a governor’s race, for example, a closed primary is seen as benefiting Landry’s hardline stances over Nungesser’s willingness to work with Democrats like Gov. John Bel Edwards.

A task force led by Hewitt to study the issue voted last week to recommend that lawmakers create a closed party primary for congressional races and leave the rest of Louisiana’s elections alone. That will be the starting point for legislative debate.

Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise and Democratic state Sen. Cleo Fields, a former congressman, are among the chief proponents for closed primaries for the congressional races because Louisiana’s “jungle primary” system regularly sees the state selecting members of Congress later than the rest of the country.

In competitive congressional races, particularly for open seats without an incumbent, races often are pushed into a December runoff—a month after nearly every other state has settled its seats. Scalise and Fields argue that puts Louisiana’s newest congressional delegation members at a disadvantage in seniority, committee assignments and orientation sessions.

Some Republican Party leaders have intensified their interest in closed primaries after the last two governors’ races featured intraparty GOP fighting among candidates that benefitted Edwards and helped contribute to his victories.

Fields suggested it would be too difficult to win legislative passage of anything more than closed primaries for congressional races, and he said even that limited closed primary bill will be hard to pass. Read the full story from the Associated Press.