The Most Interesting Political Race This Year

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New Orleans: Poor Louisiana. California has been getting all the attention lately with its gubernatorial recall election and the accompanying ballot of actors, strippers and sideshow stars. Meanwhile, Louisiana, where residents take an almost perverse pride in political insanity, has its own regularly-scheduled race for governor and no one’s paying any attention. Big mistake — Louisiana does politics like no one else. This is the home of Huey Long, who won a senate seat in 1930 while governor, but refused to go to Washington for two years until his chosen succesor was elected and sworn in. It’s also where white supremacist David Duke ran for governor, and managed to win 39% of the vote. This year’s race is a free-for-all.

California may have 135 candidates, but Louisiana’s got 18, none of them a clear frontrunner, and they’re campaigning in a unique format — the open primary. In Louisiana state elections, all candidates are on the same ballot, regardless of party. If one candidate gets over 50% of the vote, he wins the election. But if nobody gets a majority, the top two meet in a runoff one month later. Party membership doesn’t matter, so if two Democrats or two Republicans get the the most votes, they meet in the runoff. This year none of the contenders is drawing more than 20%.

Who would devise such a system? Edwin Edwards, the four-time governor of the state and a close second to Long in political charm who’s also currently in federal prison on corruption charges. Edwards devised the open primary to help himself. When he won his first term in 1972, Edwards slogged through a bruising Democratic primary and a tough runoff. By the time he got to the general election, he was beat up, while his Republican opponent, David Treen, faced no serious primary opposition (all the Republicans in Louisiana in 1972 could have fit on one Mardi Gras float). Once in office, Edwards instituted the open primary system under the assumption no Republican could survive the first round. Sure enough, Edwards got 62% of the vote in the 1975 primary and avoided a runoff entirely.

There are a lot more Republicans today, but the open primary continues to give an odd twist to campaigns. Is this any way to run an election? That’s not clear. It certainly gives the parties less clout since any interested candidate can jump into a race without getting by the party machinery, and independent voters can cast ballots in all stages of the race, which is certainly a more direct form of democracy. Then again, ask a Californian if direct democracy is always a good thing.

Who are the 18 contenders in this year’s free-for-all on Oct. 4? Only seven are considered serious candidates — more than California can say — four Democrats and three Republicans. On the Dems’ side, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Blanco is in the lead, while Attorney General Richard Ieyoub and former Congressman Buddy Leach are fighting for the next spot. Louisiana has three crucial constituencies: White Protestants, who live mostly in the northern half of the state and tend to vote Republican, blacks, who tend to vote Democratic, and Catholic Cajuns, who live in the southwest and are a tossup. The 60-year-old Blanco is from Cajun country and is winning the women’s vote hands down, despite being a pro-life Catholic. (She would be the state’s first female governor.) Ieyoub had hoped to challenge her by courting black voters, but their support is split.

On the Republican side, a wide field suddenly has a clear, if surprising, frontrunner. Bobby Jindal is 32, the son of Indian immigrants and a bit of a wunderkind. At 24, the young Rhodes scholar from Baton Rouge wrote to Gov. Mike “Bananas” Foster with suggestions for the state’s health care program and made such an impression that Foster appointed him secretary of the Department of Health and Hospitals. In 2001, President Bush made Jindal assistant secretary of Health and Human Services.

Will America’s first Indian-American Governor be elected by Louisiana? The key for Jindal is Foster, who is strongly backing his young protege. Foster himself was a minor politician until he emerged from the back of another large pack to win the 1995 election. Along the way he switched from Democratic to Republican and amused voters with his tractor driving, duck hunting and humor. Foster has had a successful eight years, and while voters have gotten a little tired of his erratic behavior and lack of political smarts, they like his policies. In a typical GOP primary, Jindal would be at a disadvantage, but in the open race he’s become the favorite as a smarter Foster. The polls show Jindal and Blanco both around 17%, which probably puts them in a runoff. But 25% of voters are still undecided, which means anything could happen in the next week. Normalcy just wouldn’t be Louisiana.