The Surge of the Louisiana Republican Party

Posted by root | 2 Sep, 2011

There was a time in Louisiana when “everyone” was a registered Democrat. The joke was that Republicans could hold a convention inside a telephone booth. Party primaries for Democrats were tantamount to election. If a candidate won the Democratic primary, that candidate was effectively elected despite the fact he or she may have had a Republican opponent in the general election. Seldom did a Democrat lose in that scenario. But times have changed. And there are many reasons for this.

In the 1970’s voters became tired of national Democrats and the antics of state and local Democrats as well. Louisiana switched to open primaries in the 70’s where voters could vote for any candidate regardless of their party affiliation or that of the candidate. The open primary has opened the door for countless Republican victories across the state and the growth of the party. Although most Louisiana voters remain registered Democrats, many of those voters now identify themselves as either Republican or Independent; and most Independents have a pattern of voting Republican.

Republican Dave Treen was elected to Congress in 1972 and Governor in 1979, and the Republican Party flourished. His image as a reformer went a long way in helping Republican candidates get elected. Today the Republican Party dominates Louisiana politics thanks to the oundation built by Dave Treen. But you can also thank Edwin Edwards, Louisiana’s four term Democrat Governor, for getting the ball rolling by pushing the open primary election system.

Today, the state legislature is dominated by Republicans. All but one of our statewide officials are Republicans. The lone statewide democratic official is Senator Mary Landrieu. In the House of Representatives in Congress five of six of our state’s members are Republicans. Both houses of the state legislature are dominated by Republicans. And Republican control is expected to expand following the October election. Republicans are being elected locally in great numbers. This is an amazing turnaround in Louisiana politics.

Today, the statewide political landscape is dominated by two people: U. S. Senator David Vitter and Governor Bobby Jindal. Senator Vitter won his Senate seat in 2004 when Senator John Breaux, a Democrat, retired. Republicans failed to win the seat in 1986 when Republican Henson Moore lost to Breaux. Vitter’s victory delivered the seat once held by Russell Long (D), son of Huey Long, into the hands of the Republican Party. This was a major defeat for Louisiana Democrats.

More recently, Sen. Vitter is making it clear he wants a voice in Louisiana Republican politics. He has endorsed House Speaker Jim Tucker for Secretary of State over incumbent Tom Schedler and Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungessor for Lt. Governor over incumbent Jay Dardenne. Vitter has endorsed Gov. Jindal, and he is expected to endorse candidates for the legislature and other local offices. In addition he is raising substantial funds for the state party to help elect more Republicans. Through his efforts Vitter will build up a base of support among those whom he helped elect and will expand his influence among other Republicans by letting them know he is a force to be reckoned with in state and local politics.

The Governor has traditionally been the leader of his state party. Bobby Jindal is moving to shore up his base with voters as well as among legislators by raising money for the party and reinforcing his role as leader of the state party. Bobby faces reelection in October and a big vote at the polls only helps in governing a state with so many varied interests, a weak economy thanks to the national recession, and a lack of revenue to do everything that the state would like to do. Furthermore, after the October election, which Jindal will easily win, he is term limited and cannot seek a third consecutive term. If Bobby wants to continue in public office, he has only one logical place to go and that is to the U.S. Senate in 2014, a race that will pit him against incumbent U. S. Senator Mary Landrieu. So a big vote in the October 2011 primary will only help in November 2014 if Gov. Jindal wants to go to Washington.

Probably the most interesting aspect of all of this is the La. Democratic Party. It has no major candidates for statewide office. No major candidate for anything, for governor, lt. governor, secretary of state, attorney general, treasurer, agriculture commissioner, or insurance commissioner. It has no spokesperson. The La. Democratic Party is as if it is in hiatus and irrelevant to Louisiana politics. Local Democrats will be elected, but those elections will be won more because of the efforts of those local candidates than of the party itself.

In all fairness to Louisiana Democrats, State Sen. Rob Marionneaux is looking at the race for governor. But he has yet to announce and qualifying is around the corner. At this point in time, it is too late for him to mount any kind of reasonable effort that could possibly win the election for him. The fact that he is waiting so long speaks volumes about the Louisiana Democratic Party.

It does not help the cause of Louisiana Democrats that President Obama is so unpopular in this state. But his unpopularity helps elect Republicans and will do so in this year’s election.

So here we are in 2011. The Republican contests on the statewide ballot will be the real elections. If there is a runoff and it is between a Republican and a Democrat, the Republican will win and the Democratic candidate will lose the election and be the sacrificial lamb for the Democratic Party. Republicans have moved out of that phone booth just in time for the Democrats to move in.