What Louisiana really has is a "no primary" system. States that have real primaries see Democrats competing with Democrats for that party's nomination, and Republicans likewise vying for the GOP nomination. General elections pit Democrats against Republicans and independents.
Under such a system, parties develop separate identities, based on their principles, rules and philosophies. They sometimes convene to hash out such matters, nominate candidates in conventions or primaries, and then present them to voters at election time. That's how a real two-party system works.
That's not what happens in Louisiana.
Our "open primary" system has been in effect for almost 30 years, and its undeniable effect has been the systematic dismantling of both parties. Oh, sure, we still have people who call themselves Democrats and Republicans, and we still have the pretext of party machinery on either side. But the truth is, party officials and party machinery have virtually no say-so in the nomination of candidates, thanks to the Louisiana "open primary" system.
In Louisiana, Democrats, Republicans, Socialists, snake charmers and assorted nutcakes run in one "open primary." It's a political free-for-all that completely guts the notion of party loyalty or even party identity. The top two vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation, proceed to a general election or runoff.
Because Louisiana elections often attract large fields of candidates, our system tends to reward extremist candidates, which is how we got the "runoff from hell" between Edwin Edwards and David Duke in 1991. It also gave us Mike Foster versus Cleo Fields in 1995. Typically, candidates on the fringes squeeze out moderates from both parties. This happens not only in elections for governor, but also those for Congress, U.S. Senate, and everything else.
Thus, over the years, we have gone from being a two-party state to a "no-party" state.
Who gave us this mess?
Because it worked for him.
When EWE was first elected governor in 1972, he had to run three times: first in a Democratic primary; then in a bruising Democratic runoff; and then once more in a general election against Republican nominee Dave Treen. Edwards resented the fact that Treen coasted to the general election (the GOP was much smaller then and Treen was pretty much nominated by acclamation). Whereas EWE had to scratch and claw his way past a field of battle-hardened Democrats, Treen was ready, rested and well-financed from the get-go.
So Edwards rammed the open primary law through the Legislature. He sold it as a boon to the GOP. Some Republicans still think that's what it was, because the party has grown significantly since the law took effect statewide in 1977.
A closer look, however, shows that Louisiana's GOP has grown more slowly since 1980 than in all other states except Arkansas. Meanwhile, the Democratic party has seen its numbers slip while Independents (voters who belong to no political party) are the fastest-growing "party" in the state.
History tells us to expect the most left-leaning Democrat to face the most right-leaning Republican in the runoff for governor. However, the GOP side of the spectrum is so crowded that the talk of the governor's race nowadays is about which Republican may drop out. The GOP faces the very real prospect of seeing two Democrats in the runoff for governor -- the ultimate triumph of EWE's "no party" system. In other races, we could see two Republicans in the runoff, as we saw for elections commissioner in 1999.
Lawmakers have several chances to change things in the current legislative session. Each chamber has before it at least one bill to give Louisiana some semblance of a two-party system. Sen. Cleo Fields has a measure to re-establish separate, closed party primaries. Rep. Loulan Pitre has a bill to guarantee two-party runoffs in races for Congress and U.S. Senate.
No system is perfect, but Louisiana's present system is probably the most flawed system in America. Almost anything would be an improvement, and either of the bills now facing floor action could be amended to make things better.