After Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards' victory, election for state Democratic chair has new importance _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Legislature 2014 session -- Making the Democratic Response after Gov. Bobby Jindal addressed the joint session of the Legislature to start the 2014 session, are, at lectern, Rep. John Bel Edwards, D-Amite, left, and Sen. Karen Peterson, D-New Orleans, right.

What’s normally a little-watched insider election could have a deeper impact for the Democratic Party in Louisiana this spring after a Democrat, Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards, defied most predictions and won the governor’s race.

Louisiana Democrats will elect members of the Democratic State Central Committee on March 5. That group will go on to decide the state party’s chairperson for the next four years.

Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, of New Orleans, has announced that she wants to keep her role as the party chairwoman, and she’s being backed by some high-profile Democrats.

“We have come a long way together, and we have so much more to accomplish. I would be honored and humbled to serve for another term,” she said in a statement.

But Edwards, who has become the de facto leader of the party following his landslide victory over Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter that drew national headlines, hasn’t said whom he wants to lead the party. Edwards takes office Jan. 11.

Asked whether Edwards is backing anyone as state party chair, his transition spokeswoman said he had no comment.

Peterson, who has chaired the party since 2012, reportedly was one of two leading Democrats who met privately with Edwards three months before the October gubernatorial primary to ask him to drop out of the race and improve the chances that a moderate Republican would win the election. They said they thought Edwards would get into the runoff but wouldn’t be able to pull off a win against the highly conservative Vitter.

Whether that session has affected Edwards’ attitude toward Peterson is unknown.

The Democratic State Central Committee is made up of two representatives — one male and one female — from each of the 105 state House districts. (A few spots are typically left vacant because they draw no candidates.)

Based on candidate qualifying information from the Secretary of State’s Office, 124 of the seats have already been decided because candidates drew no opposition.

The election takes place March 5 — the same day as the presidential primary in Louisiana, which could draw more voters to the polls. Republicans also will elect their State Central Committee members on that date.

Unlike the open primary system Louisiana typically uses, the March 5 elections will be based on voters’ party registration — meaning only Democrats can vote for Democrats and only Republicans can vote for Republicans.

The Democratic Party chair leads fundraising and campaign efforts for the state party. Right off the bat in the next term, that person will have to face the daunting task of trying to duplicate the Democrats’ stunning success in the governor’s race when the state elects a new U.S. senator next fall.

Despite Edwards’ win, Democrats lost all the other statewide races, and last fall, three-term incumbent U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu — the other Democrat who reportedly met with Edwards — lost her re-election bid to Republican Bill Cassidy.

Peterson won her chairmanship over incumbent Buddy Leach in 2012 largely because of frustration over the lackluster state of the party during his two terms as chairman.

No one has announced plans to challenge Peterson, and she has a long list of endorsements already, including nods from Landrieu, U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, Democratic National Committee First Vice Chair Donna Brazile, DNC Vice Chairman Raymond Buckley, state Senate President Pro Tempore Sharon Broome, Shreveport Mayor Ollie Tyler, Louisiana AFL-CIO Vice President Robert “Tiger” Hammond, Alexandria Mayor Jacques Roy, Monroe Mayor and Gubernatorial Transition Team Co-Chair Jamie Mayo and former U.S. Rep. Cleo Fields. Many of them credited her leadership for helping to elect a Democrat as governor.

“We need Karen to continue her work with other Southern states to rebuild and refocus our efforts showing that Democrats can and do win here in the South,” Richmond said. “I am excited to see what she and her team will be able to do in the next four years, and I will assist her in any way possible.”

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.

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