How Louisiana Democrats Lost the House Legislature

By | November 4, 2023

Before a single vote was cast, Louisiana Democrats knew they couldn’t take control of the state Legislature this year. This was mathematically impossible, because the lack of candidates meant that they did not even run in the majority of constituencies.

Their best hope for political success rested on Shawn Wilson, the state’s former transportation secretary, and the hope that he would force a runoff against Jeff Landry, the state’s hard-line Republican attorney general, in an open primary for governor.

At least, Democrats believed, Mr. Wilson would make it a little harder for the overwhelmingly favored Republican to overturn control of the governor’s mansion in a region increasingly dominated by conservatives.

But when Mr. Landry won a majority of the primaries in October, eliminating the need for a runoff, the results instead laid bare the grim conditions of a Democratic Party decimated by internal divisions, paltry fundraising totals of funds and a disenchanted electoral base. .

“If my defeat leads to change and organizing, then so be it because she’s worth it — she deserves that kind of change,” Mr. Wilson said in an interview. “Our citizens deserve better than what we get.”

Now, only a handful of political offices and legislative seats are undecided as early voting for the runoff election begins Friday. Republicans are working to unite a conservative government for the first time in eight years, led by Mr. Landry, who defended the state’s strict ban on abortion, questioned 2020 election results And fought against environmental regulations.

This is not the first time in recent years that Democrats have faced the decline of their party’s influence in the South: Defeat of Senator Mary L. Landrieu in 2014 marked the end of a 138-year streak in which at least one Democrat represented the state in the U.S. Senate. But even before the Nov. 18 election, some liberals are pushing the state party to consider deeper systemic changes ahead of high-stakes presidential and congressional elections.

Just more than 36 percent of the electorate voted, and an analysis estimated that 17 percent of black voters chose a Republican candidate in the gubernatorial primary, underscoring the depth of apathy and discontent among voters who had twice rallied around Gov. John Bel Edwards, a two-term-limited conservative Democrat.

Jean Couvillon, a longtime Republican pollster which analyzed precincts with at least 70 percent registered black voters, said the combination of some black voters turning away from the Democratic candidate, low turnout and a decline in the number of registered Democratic voters has gave rise to “a whole new ball game”.

Many Democrats have acknowledged that they have faced long odds in the gubernatorial race, given that Louisiana has become increasingly conservative and is historically prone to intraparty flip-flops for control. from his highest position. A combination of gerrymandering and increased polarization has also led several centrists to either lose their political positions or leave the Democratic Party altogether.

Mr. Wilson, who rushed to introduce himself to voters, also faced different challenges than Mr. Edwards: He would have been the first black candidate elected statewide in 150 years, in a state Who almost elected a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan as governor in the 1990s.

Mr. Edwards, who opposes allowing access to abortion, also ran well before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and abortion rights have become an issue that has galvanized the Democratic base.

But some also wondered whether the inevitability of Mr. Landry’s campaign led some Democratic allies preemptively to make inroads with the next governor. Others wondered why top Democrats had not done more to shore up support for Mr. Edwards’ obvious successors, knowing that he was unable to seek a third term.

“The Democrats are just not competing,” said Trey Mustian, who works with the Jefferson Parish Democratic Executive Committee. “The state party has a big responsibility in recruiting and fielding candidates, but they’re just not doing a good job at it.”

He added: “We really need to rehabilitate and rebuild.”

Several Democrats have focused much of their anger on party Chair Katie Bernhardt, calling on her to resign.

Ms. Bernhardt inherited an already oppressed party, succeeding Governor Edwards initially supported another candidate and replace a former president who had pleaded guilty to a single count of wire fraud after siphoning off party funds.

But anger began to fester after she posted a announcement that seemed to tease a run for governor, a move that some Democrats say blocked Mr. Wilson’s entry into the race and prioritized his personal political brand over that of the party.

“It’s pretty intimidating for us, and it’s hard enough,” said Dustin Granger, a candidate for state treasurer who had the best Democratic showing, garnering just a third of the vote. He called on Ms Bernhardt to resign in a statement, saying the party could not “let self-interest at the top continue to drag us down”.

The internal drama, some say, has further deterred donors from getting involved with the party.

Mr. Wilson described his interactions with the State Party as follows: “We need you to raise money, Shawn. » In response, his campaign raised “up to $300,000,” he said.

“And,” he added, “to this day, I am still waiting for a mailer – a ballot from the state Democratic Party – despite the fact that we followed the rules, that we followed the law, that we have made investments. »

Another division emerged when Mr. Edwards and other top Democrats backed a challenger to Mandie Landry, a liberal state representative who had fought with party leaders, for a safe seat in New Orleans . (Ms. Landry was careful to point out that she and the governor-elect are not related.)

“There’s still a big battle ahead: Are they going to become more moderate to bring back more rural white moderates, or are they going to become fully progressive in the city to energize people?” said Ms. Landry, who won her race. “And it seems like what they’ve been doing for a while is trying to bring back white moderates or white conservatives, and I think that’s stupid.”

Ms. Bernhardt and her allies have largely avoided responding directly to calls for her resignation, choosing to focus on the remaining races. These include Mr. Granger’s candidacy for treasurer and two Democratic women running for attorney general and secretary of state.

“Division leads to defeat,” wrote Ms. Bernhardt, who did not respond to interview requests. an opinion article published after the primaries. “Unfortunately, some seek to stoke divisions to advance their political agenda. This divisive rhetoric is inappropriate and counterproductive.”

But without Mr. Edwards in place to exercise his veto, there appears to be little Democrats can do to advance their own agenda in the Legislature or push back against Republican policies.

“When resources aren’t marshalled and marshalled and invested, you can’t be surprised that you don’t have that kind of backbone to fall back on,” said Stephen Handwerk, former executive director of the Louisiana Democratic Party.

And in recent days, while most Americans have heard of Rep. Mike Johnson, the hard-line Republican from Louisiana newly elected speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, several local Democrats have grimly noted a biographical detail: Mr. Johnson ran unopposed in 2022.

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