Louisiana had a rare statewide election in an off-year, special election for treasurer – a little-known position that has served as a bully pulpit to catapult at least one candidate to higher office – but the state Democratic Party backed no candidate in the race.
The election is just one sign of where the party stands in the state just two years after electing one of the only Democratic governors in the Deep South and amid an increasingly Republican dominated South fostered by Donald Trump's presidency.
"We're exercising new muscles. Muscles that have atrophied over the years," Louisiana Democratic Party executive director Stephen Handwerk said recently after the party's largest fundraiser of the year – the True Blue Gala that was held in New Orleans as Hurricane Nate threatened to hit the city, casting a dark shadow that led some to forego the event.
The gala, formerly known as the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner but low-key renamed this year amid concerns over honoring former slave owners and Confederacy sympathizers, was keynoted by Missouri's Jason Kander, a former state legislator and secretary of state who narrowly lost a race for the U.S. Senate. Gov. John Bel Edwards, the state's only Democrat elected state-wide, sent a video message instead of attending in person, and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, 57, showed up to receive a lifetime achievement award but left soon after the party to tend to his city's preparations for the looming storm.
The election, just days away at the time, wasn't mentioned, nor was candidate Derrick Edwards, who is running on the ballot as a Democrat but hasn't received the party's backing. Edwards never shared with party leaders his plans in the statewide treasurer's race.
"We have a lot of work in front of us, and ultimately our leadership chose not to make any decisions there," Handwerk said of the omission.
Edwards led the field Saturday by 29,000 votes over his nearest GOP competitor to secure a spot in the Nov. 18 runoff.
Louisiana has just one statewide-elected Democrat and a growing Republican majority in its state Legislature, and a statewide election on the ballot over the weekend with no Democratic Party-backed candidate. Some would say that things look grim for the party's foreseeable future in the state.
Trump received more votes in the state in last year's election than any candidate in Louisiana's history.
Republican U.S. Sen. John Kennedy handily defeated his Democratic opponent Foster Campbell in the 2016 Senate race – 61 percent to 39 percent – confirming the dominance of both the state's U.S. senators as Republicans and five of the state's six Congressmen as Republicans.
About 57 percent of the Louisiana House is Republican, while 38 percent is Democrat (three additional members, or about 2.8 percent, are of no party). On the Senate side, it's 64 percent Republican to about 36 Democrat.
The party's dim prospects aren't hard to ignore when it comes to numbers – a trend that is reflected across the south, where Democrats have continued to lose ground from their once-dominant position of control over the region.
Martin Johnson, a political science professor at LSU, said he was surprised that the Democrats couldn't field a credible candidate, particularly in an anticipated low-turnout, state-wide race that will ultimately be decided on the same ballot as the New Orleans mayor's race between two Democrats in November.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu received a lifetime achievement award from the Louisiana Democratic Par…
"Presumably there are Democrats in the state who would like to be state treasurer," he said. "Where are they in this?"
An opening on the relatively obscure but politically powerful Public Service Commission was also on Saturday's ballot but it featured no Democrats.
"You have to have a bench – you have to have people that could rise to progressively higher offices," Johnson said. "If the Democratic Party can't field a candidate for PSC ... That's not a good sign."
The bad signs have loomed large over the party in recent years. For the past two years the party has had to reschedule its biggest fundraising event of the year because of severe weather as major storms loomed – a Louisiana metaphor if there ever were one.
But state party leaders remain hopeful for what's ahead.
Handwerk, the party's executive director for the past six years, said that he feels enthusiasm among the state's progressives.
The "Indivisible Movement," which largely spawned nationally after Trump's election, has had active chapters demonstrating throughout Louisiana, calling on the state's elected leaders to respond on health care issues and other priorities.
"We're incredibly excited about the future, but make no mistake about it – it's going to be a lot of long hours, a lot of hard work; it's going to be a lot of rolling up our sleeves," Handwerk said.
He said he felt that the fundraiser crowd – given the weather circumstances – was positive.
"I think people were incredibly energized," he said.
Kander said he was happy to speak at the group's gathering because he also sees possibilities in Louisiana, if it can find the right candidates.
"You have a really enthused party here," he said after the New Orleans event. "You have some outstanding leaders in this party, that's a great place to start. I just think that there's really something to the fact that you don't win arguments that you don't make."
Nationally, Edwards' election was hailed as a possible signal for more opportunities in an increasingly GOP-dominated South, though back home many have pointed to the flaws in his Republican contender, then-Sen. David Vitter, as the key factor to Edwards' win.
In his message to the state party gathering, Edwards highlighted several progressive efforts he has mounted, including the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, which he ordered shortly after taking office in January 2016.
He encouraged Democrats to be energized for the 2019 election – the next statewide and legislative elections, including his own reelection campaign.
Electing a new state treasurer is at the top of Louisiana ballots Saturday when polls open a…
"It will be here before you know it," Edwards said.
Handwerk said he's also excited about the prospects for 2019 and expects to have a full slate behind Edwards' reelection campaign.
"We are really excited about the opportunities that we have for 2019," he said. "We've got something different happening right now."