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New Orleans state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, who also chairs the Louisiana Democratic Party, tries on an "America Is Already Great" hat she found while she was cleaning out her desk drawer in the Senate Chamber on June 22, 2016. 

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG

Big Democratic victories in Virginia and Alabama in the fall prompted the leader of the Louisiana Democratic Party to proclaim this month, “We are going to do the SAME here in Louisiana!”

It’s not hard to understand the optimism of state Democratic Party Chairwoman Karen Carter Peterson, who is also a state senator from New Orleans. After all, John Bel Edwards pulled off a surprise victory in the 2015 governor’s race.

Edwards’ win represented a rare reversal in Republicans' ongoing takeover of Louisiana government. It made Edwards the only Democratic governor of a Deep South state and carried a whiff of better times ahead for the party that once dominated the state and the region.

But the reality is that Edwards’ win has yet to translate into other Democratic victories here. In fact, if anything, Democrats are continuing to lose ground in Louisiana, as the two parties begin to gear up for the 2019 elections when Edwards and all 144 legislative seats will be on the ballot.

“John Bel has no coattails,” said Roger Villere, who chairs the state Republican Party. “We’re electing strong Republicans in strong races. In many races, they can’t even field a credible candidate.”

Since Edwards took office in January 2016, Democrats have lost one seat in the state House. In 2017, they couldn’t field a serious candidate in the special election to replace former state Treasurer John Kennedy, a Republican.

A year earlier, Kennedy was elected to the U.S. Senate when he crushed Foster Campbell, a Democratic member of the Public Service Commission. Campbell won only 39 percent of the vote even though Edwards raised money and campaigned for him.

What’s more, voter registration figures are trending ever more Republican.

Since January 2016, Republicans have gained 76,000 registered voters, while Democrats have lost 28,000. The number of people who have registered with other parties is also up about 18,000.

Democrats continue to hold a vast advantage in party registration, 43.8 percent to Republicans’ 30.2 percent, but that is a vestige of palmier days for the party. Many white Democrats defect in favor of GOP candidates in almost every election.

Making matters worse for Democrats, the Republicans seem to have youth on their side. About 58 percent of Democratic voters are 45 and older, while only 45 percent of Republicans voters are at least 45 years old.

“Clearly, the Democratic Party in Louisiana is losing ground to Republicans and independents,” said Greg Rigamer, a New Orleans demographer and political consultant who provided the numbers.

Stephen Handwerk, the Louisiana Democratic Party’s executive director, did not respond to an interview request. Instead, he sent an email in which he noted Democrats’ numerical advantage among registered voters.

“We are working to mobilize those voters and expand the base by developing relationships with the many resistance groups forming across the state,” Handwerk said. “The party recently trained nearly 400 people in four months in Shreveport, Lafayette, New Orleans and Lake Charles to run for office, work on a campaign, or volunteer for their favorite candidate or issue advocacy group. We are focused on recruiting candidates who are committed to progressive Louisiana values and are already laying the groundwork for the coordinated effort to re-elect Gov. Edwards.”

For 2019, the state Democratic Party will have to overcome financial troubles that have continued during Edwards’ tenure. Edwards has contributed $130,000 to the party from his campaign fund and his leadership political action committee, said Richard Carbo, the governor's spokesman. But he has mostly focused on raising money for his own campaign chest for 2019 because Republicans will go all-out to try to knock him off.

Meanwhile, the Republicans held a sold-out Elephant Gala last Saturday night in New Orleans, with 420 people paying $250 apiece.

As in other Southern states, Republicans have steadily taken control in Louisiana after decades of Democratic dominance, thanks to the steady defection of white voters. (Black voters now outnumber white voters in the Democratic Party, 723,000 to 535,000.)

Republicans gained a majority in the state House in 2010 and in the state Senate in 2011, for the first time since the post-Civil War Reconstruction era. In 2011, for the first time, Republicans swept all six statewide elected offices.

As recently as 2003, Democrats had won five of those posts.

Both of Louisiana’s senators in Washington were Democrats as recently as 2004. Now both are Republicans.

Edwards’ long-shot victory in 2015 over U.S. Sen. David Vitter, a Republican, created hope among Democrats that they would enjoy a rosier future in Louisiana.

But the governor’s triumph did not result in greater Democratic representation in the Legislature. Democrats did pick up one seat in the Senate, but Republicans still hold a 25-14 advantage there. And Republicans gained a net two seats in the state House in 2015.

That left them with 61 seats in the House, compared with 42 for Democrats and two with no party affiliation.

Since Edwards took office, Rep. Joe Marino, no party-Gretna, won the seat vacated by Bryan Adams, R-Terrytown, and Rep. John Stefanski, R-Crowley, won the seat vacated by Jack Montoucet, D-Scott.

As a result, Republicans still hold 61 seats while Democrats hold 41 and there are three no-party members.

Stefanski’s victory illustrates the depth of Democrats’ problems. Montoucet, a Democrat, had won with 63 percent of the vote in 2011 even though the state Republican Party had targeted him for defeat. He won unopposed in 2015.

But after Montoucet resigned in early 2017 to become Edwards’ secretary of the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the top two finishers in the special election to defeat him were Republicans, even though about 75 percent of the district’s voters were registered Democrats.

This story has been updated to provide the correct changes in voter registration figures since January 2016.

Follow Tyler Bridges on Twitter, @tegbridges.