Louisiana closed primary fight dies on the vine

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Louisiana State Sens Bret Allain, R-Franklin, chairman of the Senate Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Committee, talks with Sen. Sharon Hewett, R-Slidell, and Sen. Patrick McMath, R-Covington (AP)

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A Senate Republican leader Wednesday scrapped efforts to redesign Louisiana’s primary elections in the legislative session, amid sharp disagreements among GOP officials about whether to make changes or leave the state’s “jungle primary” system intact.

Slidell Sen. Sharon Hewitt proposed a return to closed party primaries for congressional elections because of concerns that Louisiana’s open primary often has the state electing members of Congress later than the rest of the country.

But the idea divided leaders in her own party, with GOP statewide elected officials and Republicans in the state’s congressional delegation at odds over the idea. The feud raised questions about whether the bill could pass, and Hewitt said she would continue studying the issue.

“My intention is not to run the bill this session,” Hewitt told the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee, which she chairs.

Of closed primaries, she said: “I don’t think that we’re really at that place yet in our state.”

In Louisiana’s current open primary system, all candidates regardless of party run against each other for elected office. If no one candidate tops 50% in that primary, the top two vote-getters advance to a head-to-head runoff. That system has been in place since 1975, with the exception of a three-year span for congressional elections.

In closed primaries, candidates from each political party run against each other and the top vote-getter from each party advances to a general election. They are seen as favoring more ideologically driven candidates over moderates.

Even though Hewitt sought to limit her closed primary bill to congressional elections, the proposal was seen as a possible stepping stone to wider closed primaries for other types of elections, and that intensified the disagreements among Republicans weighing their political futures.

Attorney General Jeff Landry, a conservative Republican eyeing a bid for governor in 2023, supports closed primaries for congressional, statewide and legislative races.

But Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, a moderate Republican also considering a run for governor, has actively lobbied against the bill, showing up at a recent meeting of the state GOP’s governing body to criticize closed primaries. He argued that changing the system would shrink voter participation, confuse and frustrate voters and lead to more partisanship.

Republican U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy said a shift to closed primaries “seems like a stupid idea.”

The proposal from Hewitt, also a potential gubernatorial candidate, stemmed in part from a push by Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise.

Scalise asked lawmakers to consider making changes to the election system to stop Louisiana from regularly selecting its members of Congress later than most other states. He was supported in the effort by Democratic state Sen. Cleo Fields, a former member of Congress.

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 others argue that puts Louisiana’s newest congressional delegation members at a disadvantage in seniority, committee assignments and orientation sessions.

But Scalise did not favor a specific approach. Hewitt said she will continue to research ways to resolve congressional races in November that may involve other kinds of election system changes.

Trying to address Scalise’s concern, the House and Governmental Affairs Committee on Wednesday started advancing an alternate approach from Republican Rep. Barry Ivey, of Baton Rouge.

That bill would shift the election dates to earlier in a year, but not declare a candidate elected until the November general election even if the candidate wins outright in the open primary. That proposal moves next to the full House for debate…By Melinda Deslatte

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