A klatch of politicos say that had Mary Landrieu run as a Republican, she would have won a fourth term to the U.S. Senate back in November.
Pro-business, pro-energy and one of the most conservative members of the Democratic Party, Landrieu was held back by the D behind her name in a state whose voting majority has become unapologetically R.
Of course, a cacophony of Republicans counter “no way, no how,” arguing that party purists can easily recognize a Republican in name only.
Let’s test that theory.
An example of just how much party identification now matters in Louisiana politics played out in the race for the 11-parish Public Service Commission seat based in the New Orleans suburbs, the birthplace of Louisiana’s modern Republican Party.
It’s a race that required Steve Scalise, the powerful majority whip in the U.S. House, to rush home at the last moment to save PSC Chairman Eric Skrmetta from being defeated by a fellow Republican, Forest Wright.
On paper, it should have been an easy reelection for Skrmetta, a longtime scion of the Jefferson Parish GOP. (Skrmetta and his family have reported liberal donations — more than $100,000 — to conservative candidates over the past decade.)
Wright should have been easy to knock off. Two years ago, the consumer advocate ran for the PSC as a Democrat. Originally from Oregon, Wright lives in New Orleans in a different PSC district and couldn’t even vote for himself.
Skrmetta called Wright’s supporters “environmental loons” and tried to work the Obama-word into every reference about his opponent. Wright countered that Skrmetta had been bought and paid for by the utility companies he regulates.
Wright came in first in the Nov. 4 primary and the cake walk became a contest. The incumbent launched clever commercials, blogger attacks and court-ordered injunctions. Tea party darling Rob Maness cut a radio ad calling Wright a “Democrat posing as a Republican” and raising the specter that if Wright won, the PSC, which Republicans would still dominate, would “go liberal” and all that would entail.
And yet, Wright lost in the runoff by only 3,990 votes out of 236,074 cast — that’s about 1 percent of the total.
When Wright ran as a Democrat in 2012, pretty much on the same platform as in 2014, he received about 40,000 fewer votes than Republican Scott Angelle, who swamped the challenger by polling 37 percent more votes. Wright was the only Democrat in the field.
“There’s no doubt that the Republican establishment coalesced behind Skrmetta in the final days,” Wright said after the election. “I feel I have a set of principles that relate to energy issues that are equally appropriate for Democratic and Republican circles.”
Wright says he’s serious about his “road to Damascus” moment that led him to become a Republican. He said he voted for Bill Cassidy, another former Democrat who switched parties, in the race for the U.S. Senate.
Are you really a Republican?
So do you believe in many Republicans’ opposition to legal recognition of homosexuality, or gay marriage? Or that 5 million immigrants whose only crime was sneaking into the country to work should be deported and break up their families? Or that global warming is a scientific hoax?
If nothing else, Wright has learned the artful nonanswer: “On the issues that I care about, I have been very forthcoming where my priorities are. I am ready to work with anyone who is ready to work with me. On issues that I am less familiar with, less involved in, I’m more likely to let people with a deeper connection with those issues lean on those issues. I don’t aim to be all things for all people.”
The issue Wright is familiar with is utility regulatory policy, which he handled for the New Orleans-based consumer group Alliance for Affordable Energy prior to the campaign.
Electricity bills are usually a consumer’s second- or third-largest monthly expense. But, explaining how those costs are calculated is dull. So, it’s not unusual for PSC candidates to wait until they’re elected to learn this utility regulation stuff. That wouldn’t have been the case here.
In fact, this election should have been a battle of the titans as Skrmetta and Wright both know their stuff and pursue the same goal — keeping electricity rates low — albeit from different philosophical perspectives. Nevertheless, the campaign focused on partisanship and personalities.
If nothing else, the campaign raised awareness among voters who couldn’t care less. That’s one thing Wright said that’s undeniable.
Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCNB. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/