by Erica Woebse
In the contemporary era of American politics, Congressional races tend to be bitter partisan battles waged between one Republican and one Democratic candidate. Third parties operate peripherally, typically only able to bring up issues for the major party candidates to address or maybe steal votes away from one of the major partisan contenders. However, this has not been the case in the congressional race in district 3 of Louisiana. In district 3, a vicious battle between two Republican incumbents forced the opposing Democratic candidate into the role so often reserved for third party contenders.
The November 6th election resulted in incumbent Republican Representative Charles Boustany winning 45% of the vote, while opposing Republican incumbent Jeff Landry, with strong support from the Tea Party and conservative Republican groups, captured 30%. As dictated by the terms of Louisiana’s jungle primary system, because neither candidate captured a majority of the vote, these Republicans will be forced to square off again in a December 8th runoff election. Many political commentators blame Democratic candidate Ron Richard for the need to hold a run-off election. While Richard was an underdog to win the seat, the 24% of the vote he earned stole votes from the Republican frontrunners and prevented either Republican candidate from capturing a majority of the votes.
What is perhaps most interesting about Richard’s role in the election, is that despite being the candidate from one of the major political parties, he was cast into the role typically reserved for third party contenders. Traditionally third party candidates are characterized by their lack of available campaign funds, lack of access to debate forums, and altered goals. Rather than striving to win the election, third party candidates often resolve themselves to try to force major party candidates to explore issues they might otherwise ignore.
This is exactly what Richard did during the election. While Boustany raised three million dollars for his campaign, and Landry 1.8 million, Richards amassed only $53,000. Boustany and Landry were invited to participate in a highly publicized pre-election radio debate, which turned into a heated contest of the two Republicans “bashing each other’s brains out.” Richard was not invited to participate in this public debate. Perhaps what are most telling are Louisiana Democratic Executive Director Stephen Handwerk’s sentiments about Richard’s importance in the election. Handwerk stated, “[Richard] was able to bring up topics that were incredibly important to…working men and women.” Rather than legitimately contend for the congressional seat, Richard’s role in the election was to force the frontrunners to address issues that might have otherwise been ignored in the election rhetoric.
As an anomaly in a world of Republican/Democrat battles for power, it is interesting to examine how this bizarre situation arose. The first part of the explanation is based on the drop in the population of southwest Louisiana and the resulting redistricting that occurred. Governor Jindal has routinely insisted on forming vertical districts in Northern parts of Louisiana. The formation of these districts and the change in population in southwest Louisiana resulted in Landry’s district bring split up, and his being drawn into the same district as Boustany. Consequently, the two Republican incumbents were forced to square off against each other for only one congressional seat.
The second and perhaps more telling factor is Louisiana’s unusual primary system. The jungle primary, used in Louisiana, requires all candidates for any local, state, or congressional position to run together on the day of the general election, without first holding a party-specific primary. If any candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the election is over. If not, the two candidates with the most votes face off in a runoff election.
According to Duverger’s rule, single member districts will lead to a two party system. However, because of the strange primary system used in Louisiana and redistricting placing incumbents from the same party in the same district, this principal has morphed slightly. With the lack of a party specific primary, Republicans did not have the opportunity to unite under one candidate. Therefore in a district that is mostly Republican, two Republican incumbents with different ideals were forced to square off in competition for one seat. What is perhaps most interesting, is that in this single member district, where under different circumstances there would typically be a competition between two candidates from rival parties, there were still two principal contenders competing for power – despite their being from the same political party. The third most popular candidate, even though he happens to be from a major party, was forced into a secondary role. Although this is a somewhat unfamiliar setup in the American experience of Republican/Democrat battles, this battle can be understood in the context single member districts, redistricting, and the crazy jungle primary system.