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Closed party primary debate dividing 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 each other 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. “In an open primary, that’s the fairest way. You’ve got to speak to all the people of Louisiana.”

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.

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 Monday to recommend that lawmakers create a closed party primary for congressional races and leave the rest of Louisiana’s elections alone. Each party would decide, under the recommendation, whether voters without party affiliation can participate in its primary or be sidelined.

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.

Fields briefly persuaded lawmakers to create a closed party primary for congressional elections for the 2008 and 2010 U.S. House and U.S. Senate elections. But lawmakers reinstated the open primary system by the 2012 congressional races.

The Legislature has seen a lot of turnover since then.

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.

“Let’s get our members of Congress to Washington at the same time as (everyone else), and then let’s call it a day,” he told the task force.

There’s not uniform agreement even among Louisiana’s members of Congress.

Republican U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy — who has drawn his party’s ire because he voted to convict former President Donald Trump in the recent impeachment trial — has panned the proposal to shift Louisiana to closed primaries.

When asked about the debate in February, Cassidy replied: “It seems like a stupid idea.”

Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000.

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