Mold-Breaking Rivals Vie in Louisiana Runoff Election
By Mike Hasten, Special to Stateline
Regardless of the outcome of the Nov. 15 election, Louisiana will make history -- either the first woman or the first non-white male will be elected governor.
Like voters in most states, Louisiana residents will choose between a Republican and a Democrat in the election. But a two-party clash is not automatic since Louisiana has no party primaries.
This year's Oct. 4 open primary pared a field of 17 candidates down to Republican Bobby Jindal, a 32-year-old of East Indian descent who was born and reared in Baton Rouge, and Democrat Kathleen Babineaux Blanco of Lafayette, a 60-year-old grandmother of Cajun descent.
A state constitution adopted in 1974 dropped party primaries because then-Gov. Edwin Edwards, a Democrat, wanted to cut the cost of running for office.
Candidates of all parties and independents compete in a free-for-all primary and the last two candidates standing square off in a general election.
"Everybody just jumps in there and runs, which saves the state money. It eliminated a $5 million election," said Frances Simms, director of the secretary of state's elections division.
Political experts complain that the system often results in candidates representing two extremes in the run-off election.
"If you're in the middle of the road, you get run over," said University of Louisiana-Monroe political science professor Pearson Cross.
The open primary system reinvigorated the Louisiana Republican party, which long had so few adherents they were jokingly called an endangered species.
Most people don't feel an allegiance to a party (anymore). One-third of the Democrats usually vote Republican," said state Republican Party Director Jason Hebert.
In 1979, when a two-term limit prevented Edwards from running again, Dave Treen was elected as the first Republican governor of Louisiana since Reconstruction. Treen, the race's only Republican, won by 9,000 votes after gaining endorsements from three Democrats who didn't make the run-off.
Republican registration skyrocketed after Treen's election. Over the years, it has grown to 30 percent of the electorate (645,776 Republicans to almost 1.6 million Democrats).
Even without party primaries, most of Louisiana's gubernatorial races since 1974 have ended in two-party run-offs.
This year's candidates present differences far beyond party lines.
Jindal's parents immigrated to the United States prior to his birth. When he was four years old, he adopted the name Bobby from a character on the television series, "The Brady Bunch," and dropped his real name, Piyush.
His career in government began in 1995 when incumbent Republican Gov. Mike Foster tapped the 24-year-old Rhodes scholar to head the state Department of Health and Hospitals. In 1998, Jindal went to work with U.S. Sen. John Breaux, D-Louisiana, on Medicare reform for two years and then returned to Louisiana to head the University of Louisiana System.
After two years, Jindal again left the state, this time asked by President George W. Bush to work on health issues. He resigned his federal position when Foster asked him to run for governor, pledging his financial and political support.
Blanco served in the Louisiana House of Representatives 1984-88 before resigning to take an elected position on the Louisiana Public Service Commission, which she eventually chaired. Elected lieutenant governor in 1995, she is completing her second term. She ran a brief campaign for governor against Foster four years ago but decided to run for re-election instead.
Unlike the governor, there is no term limit on the lieutenant governor, so she probably could have easily won re-election. Her replacement was elected in the Oct. 4 primary
Pre-primary polls this year gave Blanco an early lead but Jindal jumped ahead. He captured 33 percent of the primary vote to Blanco's 18 percent.
Jindal began the run-off campaign with significant momentum and healthy funding, having raised more but spent less than most challengers.
Blanco's hope is to unify Democrats, who cast two-thirds of primary votes. Four of the top six vote-getting candidates in the primary were Democrats.
Both candidates' principal concerns are controlling national party interference and stirring voter interest in the race.
Although a 70 percent turnout was predicted, only half of the state's voters went to the polls for the primary. Turnout is expected to be significantly lower in the general election since few offices are left to be decided.
Mike Hasten is the Gannett capital bureau reporter, based in Baton Rouge.