An anemic vote tally for U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, the last Democrat elected statewide, has politicians wondering if, like the rest of the Deep South, Louisiana has become a place where only Republicans can win the major offices.
“It looks like a long, dark tunnel for Democrats in this state,” said LSU political science professor Robert E. Hogan, who specializes in state level politics.
Despite extraordinary “get-out-the-vote” efforts by Democrats, Landrieu polled 378,919 fewer ballots Tuesday than she did six years ago. Fifty-six percent of the 1.4 million voters instead chose a Republican.
Only about 17 percent of the white voters backed her, and a sizable majority told pollsters as they exited the voting machines that they support Republican candidates regardless of their own party registration.
Like Democrats who lost in other states, Landrieu is a well-financed incumbent with a storied political name, nurturing to business, opposing the White House on several policies and carving out nuanced positions on thorny social issues.
“Mary Landrieu had the recipe for how Democrats can win in the South,” Hogan said. “It’s hard to think of a way to appeal to these types of voters in any better way.”
This is not to say that Landrieu, of New Orleans, is toast in the Dec. 6 runoff against Republican U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, of Baton Rouge. She has been counted out before, only to eke out a victory that embarrassed many who had predicted her doom.
The numbers, however, raise questions about the viability of any Democrat seeking the big offices in Louisiana.
Though Democrats are frozen out of most state and federal offices in Louisiana and across the Deep South, about two-thirds of the officials on a local level are members of the Democratic Party. Nevertheless, Republicans now control every legislature, every governor’s mansion and all but four statewide offices in nine of the 11 states of the Old Confederacy.
Hogan differentiates some of the Southern states with large urban areas — Texas, Georgia, Virginia, Florida and North Carolina — that are attracting younger, urban professionals and immigrants to join already large minority populations. Those demographics skew to the more liberal stances on social issues, such as gun rights and gay marriage, and eventually will sway the vote toward Democrats. For Louisiana and the rest of the rural South, the predominantly conservative white populations, who are more traditional on social issues, will continue to outnumber the minorities.
State Rep. John Bel Edwards, the only announced Democrat with plans to run statewide anytime soon, says the “conservative economic, moderate social” model championed by Landrieu and other Southern Democrats can still produce a winner in Louisiana’s gubernatorial elections next year.
“The forces that were in play Tuesday will not be the forces in 2015, when the people of Louisiana will be focusing more on the state issues rather than these national issues,” said Edwards, who as leader of the House Democratic Caucus organized opposition to Jindal administration policies.
He plans to hang Gov. Bobby Jindal, whom polls show is less popular in Louisiana than President Barack Obama is nationwide, around the necks of the three announced Republican big feet: U.S. Sen. David Vitter, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and Louisiana Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle.
Four generations of Edwardses, including his brother, have been sheriffs of Tangipahoa Parish, which mixes bedroom suburbs for New Orleans and Baton Rouge with rural agriculture communities. He was a U.S. Army Ranger and commanded a rifle company in the 82nd Airborne. He hunts and — unlike several Republicans who tout A grades from the National Rifle Association — handles weapons even when photographers are not around.
But a lot of Southern Democrats who talk like Edwards long ago switched to the Republican Party. State Sen. Robert Adley, of Benton, was one.
He calls himself a “Boll Weevil Democrat.” He refers to the wing of the Democratic Party from the 1950s into the 1990s that was considered pro-business but held moderate positions on social issues.
“That has gone away. Talk radio, TV, changes in the media wiped that out. Now you have to choose sides. When the Boll Weevil Democrat went away, the opportunity to cross lines went, too,” Adley said. “When I enter into a debate, I want the debate to be on the facts and the merits of the issue, not on what party I belong to. If you’re a Democrat, it’s just too easy to throw off any reasonable debate by saying, ‘This guy is a liberal.’ ”
Should Landrieu lose on Dec. 6, the last Democrat standing will be the pugnacious Louisiana Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell, of Bossier Parish. His predominantly rural district only covers the northern third of the state and has about 1 million residents. But they are among the most conservative voters in Louisiana.
Yet, Campbell on Tuesday thumped a well-funded, professionally managed Republican challenger who had the backing of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.
Campbell says the key is to take care of constituents’ needs and serve as their voice before the mighty.
“I’m just not Republican material. I’m a consumer advocate. I’m for helping people, not helping the Chamber of Commerce,” Campbell said.
Too often, Democrats wring their hands over what the polls say about how they should stand on this or that controversial policy. “Rather than tap dance around it, you need decide and get on the side you think is right,” Campbell said, adding, “We have way too many politicians who are interested only in getting elected and re-elected. But sometimes you got to rock the boat.”
Albert Samuels, a political scientist from Southern University, points out that the politically “Solid South” was Democratic from Reconstruction after the Civil War to until recently. Starting in the 1970s, Republicans began their “Southern Strategy” to switch “Boll Weevils” and attract Democrats angered at civil rights legislation.
Into the first decade of the new century, Louisiana Democrats still held majorities in local, state and federal offices. Party officials never worried much about any “ground game,” Samuels said. Any organizing and get-out-the-vote efforts were handled by one of the political clubs working closely with a specific candidate, or even by the candidates themselves.
It has only been during the last few years when Louisiana Democrats came out of the shock of losing control of state government and the congressional delegation that they reorganized and focused on building a full-time grassroots organization, Samuels said.
The 2014 Senate effort is the first time the successful, tech-laden effort perfected by Obama’s team is being used in Louisiana. Turnout in this state — about half of the 2.9 million registered voters in Tuesday’s primary — was about 10 percent higher than in other states. But it’s too early to gauge the impact of identifying possible voters and trying to engage them, particularly in a state-level campaign.
“They’re trying to build a grassroots organization and, in that, they are a couple decades behind the Republicans,” Samuels said. “Here’s the real question, if, after this year and 2015, they go ‘0’ for statewide, having nothing to show for all their efforts: Will that lead to changes in leadership, like we saw a couple years ago? Or will they stay the course for the long term?”
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