There was a time, not so long ago, when national Democrats looked at Louisiana as at least somewhat friendly country. Really, they did.
As recently as 2004, most of the state’s top politicians were still Democrats, a fact that led outsiders to draw all sorts of iffy conclusions.
One was that then-newly elected Gov. Kathleen Blanco had cracked the code and figured out how to win in a region that was turning bright red all around Louisiana. In fact, Blanco, fresh off her victory over a bright young Republican named Bobby Jindal, was something of a celebrity at that year’s Democratic National Convention in Boston. Higher-ups scrambled to meet her, and radio talkers even mentioned her as a possible future national figure.
Another was that, even though longtime U.S. Sen. John Breaux was retiring, his brand of non-ideological politics remained viable for the foreseeable future, to be passed down to a like-minded next generation of politicians like Chris John and Charlie Melancon.
And there was a feeling that U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, already a survivor of two extraordinarily close calls, was finally at least somewhat secure in her job.
That’s not how things turned out, of course.
Part of the secret to Blanco’s and Breaux’s success was not that they were Democrats; it was that they were Louisiana Democrats, specifically, the sort of Cajun-country Democrats who stuck to the middle of the road on many matters and distanced themselves from the national party on cultural issues.
Blanco may or may not have won a second term had Hurricane Katrina stayed to the east or the levees held, but if she had, it would have been because she worked in Baton Rouge, not Washington. In congressional elections, it turned out, the winds already were shifting by 2004, and the key swing area of Acadiana already was moving toward the reliably Republican column.
Breaux attempted to hand his seat off to John, only to watch up-and-coming Republican David Vitter swoop in and take it. Melancon put presidential nominee John Kerry at arm’s length and eked out a congressional win against a weak opponent that year, but in 2010, he, too, lost to Vitter. By then, things had turned so partisan that it’s hard to imagine that even the far more formidable Breaux could have survived.
Landrieu, a New Orleanian and the least conservative of the bunch (although very much a moderate by national standards), followed a similar path, focusing intently on localized matters such as energy and disaster aid, and steering clear of partisan landmines whenever possible. For a long time, it worked. But unless she pulls off her biggest miracle yet on Dec. 6 against U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, she too will be history, leaving not one statewide office and just a single congressional seat in Democratic hands.
The question, then, for the Democrats and for ambitious souls like Landrieu’s younger brother, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, is what do they do now?
The old path to victory, assuming a huge advantage among black voters and liberals while peeling off enough moderate and conservative white voters to build a majority, is blocked. It was always awkward anyway, as voters who actually supported Democratic policies often felt taken for granted. The only silver lining for them is that they now control what’s left of the party and can say what they think without worrying about scaring off voters who aren’t going to support them anyway.
In the short term, Democrats don’t have many options except perhaps to try to paint their opponents as simply unacceptable, a last-gasp strategy that Mary Landrieu’s campaign has trotted out against Cassidy. And they can continue to focus on areas where their positions remain popular, such as raising the minimum wage.
Other than that, about the best they can do is stop trying to re-create what they once had and figure out how to build a new coalition. And to settle in for the long haul, because just like the Republicans’ rise, it could take a while.