Not dead yet
Much of the Deep South joined the GOP decades ago. But Louisiana hung back, passing nearly a century without a Republican as governor and 120 years without one in the U.S. Senate. Those were the heyday years: Huey Long, John Breaux, J. Bennett Johnston, Edwin Edwards (before he went to prison) and Cleo Fields getting out the vote on buses and Mardi Gras floats.
But those times, they are a-changin'. In the past decade, Democrats have gone from holding a comfortable 60% majority of registered voters in Louisiana to less than half. In the Capital Region, Democrats are a hair less than half of the 272,536 registered voters.
Even the remaining registered Democrats are increasingly voting Republican. Louisiana now has just two Democrats representing it in Washington, D.C.: U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu and Congressman Cedric Richmond, both of New Orleans. At home, the Louisiana House and Senate are both now majority Republican.
In recent years, several high-profile and long-standing Democrats defected to the other side, most notably Attorney General Buddy Caldwell, former Department of Natural Resources Secretary (and current candidate for Public Service Commission) Scott Angelle and six state legislators, including Sen. John Alario of Westwego, the longest-serving member of the Legislature.
The party's waning influence is even evident on Facebook: As of August, 21,419 people “like” the Republican Party of Louisiana, and just 2,096 “like” Louisiana Democrats.
“The Democratic Party is in deep trouble,” Albert Samuels, an associate professor of political science at Southern University, told Business Report last summer. “Just a few years ago, Democrats used to hold the majority of all statewide offices, and now, with the exception of Mary Landrieu, every office is held by a Republican.”
Louisiana Democrats are quick to note their plight is far from doom and gloom. The mayors of most of Louisiana's major cities are Democrats: Mitch Landrieu in New Orleans, Kip Holden in Baton Rouge, Cedric Glover in Shreveport, Randy Roach in Lake Charles, Jacques Roy in Alexandria and James Mayo in Monroe.
“The Democratic Party is far from lethargic,” says Buddy Leach, who was ousted as Louisiana Democratic Party chairman this spring by Karen Carter Peterson. “It has great leaders in office throughout the state.”
So what is the party's problem?
Louisiana voters' disdain for national Democratic leadership can't be overlooked.In 2008, Obama received 40% of the state vote—long before the widely unpopular national health care plan and moratorium on deepwater drilling. Perceived left-leaning leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are routinely vilified by state voters.
Another challenge is the issue few are willing to broach: race. Voter registration rolls indicate the Louisiana Democratic Party is nearly evenly split between blacks and whites. Louisiana demographer and political analyst Elliott Stonecipher says white Democrats, who constitute a little more than one-fourth of all registered voters in the state, have emerged as Louisiana's true swing voters, and have proven themselves willing to vote for either party. Conversely, black Democrats, he says, almost exclusively vote for Democratic candidates.
Thus, the Democratic Party in Louisiana continuously finds itself in the position of trying to court white Democrats without alienating black party members—a difficult road to travel. Samuels says when it comes to economic policy in particular, blacks tend to favor a more activist government, while whites tend to be more skeptical about the role of government.
“The challenge for the Democratic Party is trying to figure out how to straddle that,” he says. “The Democratic Party has to figure out how to thread that needle: how to hang on to blacks, who are necessary but not sufficient in numbers to win elections, and still get the white Democratic vote.”
Stonecipher says that with blacks “spotting” the Democratic Party more than one-fourth of the total vote, a Democratic candidate needs just one out of every three white votes to win in a runoff with a Republican. The reason they haven't been able to do it, he says, is that they are perceived by white voters to be the party of blacks.
At the same time, Samuels says, there is a growing resentment among middle-class black voters that despite their overwhelming support for the party, the party is not evenhanded in supporting black candidates for office. Consider, for example, the party money spent on losing candidates Charlie Melancon and Caroline Fayard, compared to what was spent on winning candidate Cedric Richmond.
Even so, political analysts predict it's just a matter of time before the party makes a comeback in Louisiana. After all, politics is typically cyclical.
“The Democrats in the South are on life support for sure,” says Bob Mann, a communications professor at LSU who served Louisiana's last Democratic governor and three of its Democratic U.S. senators.
“Political parties are pretty good at adapting, but sometimes they don't adapt until they're in deep trouble. The Democratic Party in Louisiana is in deep trouble, but it will learn to adapt. It just may take awhile."
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