Oct. 17, 2016 11:01 AM

Why the U.S. Senate Race Might Feel Like a Closed Primary

Media coverage in Louisiana of the fall U.S. Senate race has often veered toward descriptions of mini-closed primaries playing out inside of the state’s storied jungle primary.

Unlike most other states, Louisiana elects its officials using an open primary system where all of the candidates run against each other on the first ballot. If no one gets more than 50 percent, the top two vote-getters will advance to the runoff. And that’s how Louisiana voters will select their next senator on Nov. 8.

Who coined the “jungle primary” moniker is unknown, but it’s a spot-on characterization of the Bayou State’s wild, sometimes loose and independently minded politics. The Louisiana model stands in stark contrast to closed primary elections, which are the norm most everywhere else around the nation. A closed primary relies upon party-specifics elections to determine which Republican and which Democrat makes it to the general ballot.

In this year’s contest to replace U.S. Sen. David Vitter, a record-setting 24 candidates qualified to run, forcing campaigns to focus more on shoring up their respective bases rather than chasing crossover votes. It created an environment where intra-party attacks became necessary as candidates fought over the same segments of the electorate.

“The field got carried away, and nobody wanted to step out,” says Roy Fletcher, a Baton Rouge media consultant, adding that the leading candidates from each party are starting to look like they’re carving out near-equal vote shares. “Nobody is breaking out of the pack because no one is saying anything. Somebody is going to have to get out there and say something, do something.”

On the Republican side, U.S. Reps. Charles Boustany and John Fleming, state Treasurer John Kennedy and retired Air Force Col. Rob Maness have all lobbed verbal bombs at each other at one point or another. Plus, Maness and Fleming, in particular, are competing for the same kind of far-right conservative voters.

In 2014, the last time Louisiana hosted a U.S. Senate election, Vitter helped clear the field of Republican candidates, which factored heavily into U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy’s win. There’s no such figurehead moving chess pieces in this year’s race, and the sheer volume of political muscle on the ballot is keeping other top GOP influencers from endorsing.

On the Democratic side, attorney Caroline Fayard has the support of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, and Gov. John Bel Edwards has endorsed Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell. That has made it difficult for Fayard and Campbell, whose campaigns have a frosty relationship, to lock down an endorsement from the Louisiana Democratic Party.

With both mainline parties split, it’s doubtful that any one candidate will feel the full benefits of coordinated efforts from the Republicans and Democrats. Those resources will have to be focused on turning out party voters, rather than specific voters for a particular candidate. That means the campaign will be largely on their own to turn out their bases on Election Day — just like campaigns operate in closed party primaries.

“I don’t see any of this as a closed primary approach,” says state Sen. Norby Chabert of Houma, a former political consultant who quickly tossed aside the now widely used metaphor. “The problem with it is you’re assuming that we’re going to have a Republican-versus-Democrat runoff. That’s not a guarantee. If anything, what’s happening now is actually emphasizing the jungle nature of the way we do things.”

Fletcher, having reviewed various mathematical breakdowns that are possible for the Nov. 8 Senate election, echoes these remarks in terms of the potential runoff variations. He says he could see how an all- Democratic runoff could happen.

“That’s a possibility,” Fletcher says. “I don’t think we should ignore that.”

Math is a funny thing this cycle, he adds. With such a large field, the frontrunning candidates are clearly losing voters to lesser-known candidates who would otherwise go with the seasoned veterans. Acadiana oil executive Josh Pellerin is planning to self-fund a competitive bid on the Democratic side, and New Orleans businessman Abhay Patel is making small waves with his grassroots push from within the GOP. Neither intends to be a 1 percent candidate.

Not to be outdone, former klansman David Duke has arguably received more national media attention than the rest of the field combined. Duke is showing up in some polls with nearly 10 percent of all support from white men, and his name has become a lightening rod in this race.

The front-running candidates are also having to play it safe in order to protect their respective bases around the state.

According to averages from the most recently released public polls, no other candidate has a more consolidated base than Boustany, who lives in Lafayette. His hold on Acadiana is the strongest in the field and has tightened significantly due to his media buys. His opponents are now faced with a decision: either go into Acadiana and try to compete, or endeavor to contain Boustany to Acadiana and cut off his growth elsewhere.

Fleming, who lives in Minden, has the second strongest regional hold in northwest Louisiana. He also has benefitted from a massive television buy. But unlike Boustany, who has doubled down on firming up his Acadiana base, Fleming has taken a divided approach. While the Shreveport region is important, the Fleming campaign has likewise put a special emphasis on the Metairie area and New Orleans.

Then there’s Kennedy, who has a split base: the Northshore, around St. Tammany and Tangipahoa, and the Baton Rouge area. Kennedy has roots in both communities, but he looks like a Baton Rouge candidate on paper, due largely to his job in the Capital City and his upbringing in Zachary. His home, though, is in Madisonville.

Fayard, from New Orleans, and Campbell, from northwest Louisiana, have two very different regional strengths, and both have made strides in protecting them. They’ve also been pushing hard to gain ground on the other’s home turf. Campbell’s campaign has been bolstered by traditional Democratic support, like teachers unions, while Fayard’s campaign has the backing of some key progressives in the party and pro-charter school organizations.

Internal polling from a few of the Senate campaigns shows the undecided factor is finally starting to drop after weeks of being uncomfortably high. To get it down even further, few political observers are convinced that the upcoming debates will offer many opportunities for any of the candidates to break out.

Instead, it looks like the campaign will be a media contest in these final weeks of the primary.

“It’s going to have to happen on TV, in commercials,” says Fletcher. “It won’t happen anywhere else.”

For more Louisiana political news, visit www.LaPolitics. com or follow Jeremy Alford on Twitter @LaPoliticsNow.

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