Michelle Davis, a petite 19-year-old, stood last week at a Southern University meeting to say she signed up in one of those fevered new-voter drives. Now, she wonders, what’s next?
“I never voted. Where do we start?” she asked.
A Hurricane Katrina evacuee from New Orleans, Davis graduated high school in Houston before returning to Louisiana to attend Southern. She said she didn’t know the candidates or the issues, or even where to actually cast her ballot when the time came.
The importance of the African-American vote in Louisiana has been talked about almost from the very moment when Republican strategists did the math and realized that Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu was vulnerable. The GOP is focusing on her re-election and a half-dozen others in its bid to take control of the U.S. Senate.
Thirty-one percent of the state’s 2.9 million registered voters are African-American, and Ben Jeffers estimates Landrieu could receive up to 95 percent of ballots cast by black voters in the Nov. 4 election. Early voting begins Tuesday.
The former chief of staff to Gov. Edwin W. Edwards, Jeffers was hired by the Democrats a couple weeks ago to boost turnout of minorities.
Much of the effort is to provide the “how to” information to people like Davis who were registered, then forgotten. But there also has been an uptick in events aimed at engaging African-American voters, including prayer breakfasts and Senate debate watch parties.
Though many polls show a neck-and-neck race, Jeffers says he believes that Landrieu could win the primary if a high percentage of the 912,764 black voters show up at the polls — along with seniors, women and union members — groups in which the three-term senator has support and who vote more regularly.
A survey by the LSU Public Policy Research Lab, released Sept. 30, says Louisiana black voters will vote in percentages far higher than the lackadaisical 40 percent turnout expected in minority communities nationwide. But white Louisiana Republicans are more engaged in this election, and 84 percent of 944 registered voters questioned by LSU say they are “absolutely certain” to vote. That compares to 78 percent of black Democrats and 79 percent of white Democrats.
One reason why African-Americans favor Landrieu is because white Republicans and black Democrats talk past each other, says Albert Samuels, a Southern political science professor.
GOP candidates, for instance, try to explain their positions by playing up the need for local governments to protect their powers against federal interference. And that’s where any meeting of the minds stops. “When I hear states’ rights, I think segregation,” Samuels said.
Disconnect or not, state Sen. Elbert Guillory argues that African-American unemployment and poverty have increased largely because Democrats can count on a monolithic vote. While African-Americans “scrounge together food stamps to buy Kool-Aid, she sips Champagne,” Guillory says about Landrieu in a YouTube video that tea partiers and Republicans want to take onto mainstream television as a commercial.
The 70-year-old Guillory started out as a Republican, changed to the Democratic Party for six years, then in 2013 flipped back to the GOP, which landed him a spot on national conservative talk shows, such as those hosted by Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. He is a political opponent of the father of Landrieu’s chief of staff, Don Cravins Jr.
The conservative National Review says Guillory is a star among Republicans because of his video. U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, Landrieu’s chief Republican opponent, tells of visiting with residents of Academy Street in Opelousas — made famous in Guillory’s video.
Democratic state Rep. Ted James dismisses the accusations leveled by Guillory. “Elbert thinks he speaks for the community. He doesn’t,” not even for a few. But it’s Guillory’s kind of misleading take on information, James says, that compelled him to walk his Baton Rouge neighborhood, talking to his constituents — and Cassidy’s — urging them to go and vote for Landrieu.
Building damning critiques on shaky and convoluted facts is just part of any campaign, he says. But what is offensive to James is that few, if any, other Republican candidates campaigned at Southern University’s homecoming.
“That’s the largest convening of black voters prior to the election,” James said. “It sends the message that we don’t care about you. It sends the message that says, ‘We can win this without you.’ It the sends message that says, ‘When we get into office, we can ignore you.’ ”