Republicans are likely to tighten their grip over the Louisiana Legislature this fall because they are favored to pick up more seats held by outgoing Democratic legislators, analysts said.
Republicans stand to make these gains even if Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, defeats his two Republican challengers, U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham and businessman Eddie Rispone.
The stakes are especially high this fall because nearly half of the 144 legislators are term-limited or voluntarily leaving office.*
Louis Gurvich, who chairs the Louisiana Republican Party, is aiming for Republicans to hold a two-thirds supermajority in the House and the Senate following the Oct. 12 primary and Nov. 16 runoffs. Achieving that goal — which would require picking up nine seats in the House and one in the Senate — appears to be a tall challenge.
Republicans could dictate the redrawing of the new legislative and congressional districts, following the 2020 census, if they can gain that supermajority — 70 seats in the House, 26 in the Senate — and if they can maintain strict party discipline.
Baton Rouge, however, has yet to fully imitate Congress’ extremely partisan voting patterns, owing to the governor’s powers to cut deals to win over members of the opposite party on key votes.
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With a supermajority, a Republican Legislature could also override Edwards’ vetoes, if he is re-elected — again if GOP members can maintain strict party discipline.
The current breakdown in the House is 61 Republicans, 39 Democrats and five no-party members. In the Senate it's 25 Republicans and 14 Democrats.
“We want a more conservative voice in both chambers,” Gurvich said.
Republican pickups seem certain because, as they have done each election cycle over the past 20 years, they will likely win seats held by white Democrats in rural areas who are facing term limits or leaving office for other reasons. Those areas have been gradually swinging to the GOP.
“White Democrats are on the verge of being extinct” in Louisiana, said Bernie Pinsonat, a pollster who works for candidates of both parties. “You’ll have a handful left in the Capitol after these elections.”
Three rural white Democrats are leaving the House because of term limits. They are Reps. Bernard LeBas, of Ville Platte; Robert Johnson, of Marksville; and Dorothy Sue Hill, of Dry Creek.
“Those are three key seats that the Democrats need to hold onto,” Pinsonat said. “Democrats have been decimated in rural areas.”
The Louisiana Democratic Party continues to decline under a Democratic governor, John Bel Edwards.
Johnson and LeBas are vying for an open state Senate seat in a race that also includes Heather Cloud, the Republican mayor of Turkey Creek. Hill’s husband, Harold, is running to replace his wife, who had replaced him.
Another white Democrat in Republican sights is Sen. John Milkovich, D-Keithville, who won nationwide attention during the 2019 legislative session by sponsoring a strict anti-abortion bill approved by the Legislature and signed into law by Edwards. Business groups have endorsed Barry Milligan, a Republican business consultant and banker.
Republicans will likely have more money to spend this year thanks to their alliance with oil and gas interests, the state’s business lobby and pro-gun and anti-abortion groups. Public service unions, trial attorneys and school choice groups will predominantly finance Democratic campaigns.
The Louisiana Committee for a Conservative Majority, started 15 years ago by then-U.S. Sen. David Vitter, is aiming to flip seven House and Senate seats from Democrat to Republican and is seeking to oust one Republican seen as too friendly with Edwards. The group has about $1 million to spend this fall.
Democrats for Education Reform, the biggest-spending group on the Democratic side, is supporting more than 40 House and Senate candidates. The group wants to ensure a continuation of the teacher pay raise approved by the Legislature and Edwards in 2019; a continuation of full funding for the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students and Go Grant university scholarships; and a continuation of programs that allow for parents to choose the public school that they think best fits their child.
“We think that the Democratic Party is the party that champions education and schoolchildren, and this election is an opportunity to elect candidates who will do just that,” said Eva Kemp, the education group’s state director.
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A more conservative Legislature would likely seek an early phase-out of a temporary renewal of 0.45% of state sales tax that Edwards and the Republican-controlled Legislature approved in 2018. The tax renewal helped end Louisiana’s budget shortfalls — which began under former Gov. Bobby Jindal — and left the treasury with a surplus of $300 million for each of the past two years. State law has required that some of the surplus be socked away into the state’s rainy day fund, and lawmakers have spent some of it on badly needed road projects.
A more conservative Legislature also would likely seek to put new limits on lawsuits filed by trial attorneys and to block Democratic initiatives to raise the minimum wage and require equal pay for women for the same work performed by men.
They also could seek to repeal Edwards’ initiatives that are forcing companies to win approval from local governments for local tax exemptions they seek for their industrial projects. Conservatives say the requirement is discouraging business investment. Before Edwards became governor, a state board rubber-stamped those requests, whether or not the investments actually created jobs.
And such an assembly also might seek to take away health care from some or all of the beneficiaries of Edwards’ decision to expand Medicaid to the working poor. About 450,000 people have health insurance due to his decision.
In a first instance of its kind in recent history, House members acted independently of the governor after Edwards’ election and chose state Rep. Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, as their speaker in January 2016 over the governor’s Democratic candidate.
Members of the House will likely elect once again a conservative Republican as their speaker, no matter who is governor.
Republicans have been aggressively seeking to knock out white Democrats dating to when then-Rep. Jim Tucker, of Algiers, led the House Republican caucus when Kathleen Blanco was the state’s Democratic governor, from 2004-08.
Republicans gained a majority in the House in 2010, and they seem likely to keep strengthening their numbers this fall.
Only Republicans qualified for seats currently held by two white Democrats: Reps. James Armes, of Leesville and Truck Gisclair, of Larose. Only Republicans qualified for two seats held by white no-party legislators: Reps. Terry Brown, of Colfax, and Jim Morris, of Oil City. Together, that amounts to a Republican pickup of four seats.
No Democrat filed to replace Rep. Sam Jones, of Franklin, another white Democrat, but two no-party candidates are running. That represents a loss of one Democrat.
Democrats flipped one seat when Sen. Francis Thompson, D-Delhi, was the only candidate to file for his former House seat, currently held by Republican Bubba Chaney, of Rayville, who is term-limited. The state term limits law allows Thompson to run for the House.
Similarly, Sen. Neil Riser, R-Columbia, termed out in the Senate, is running for the House seat being vacated by Rep. Steve Pylant, R-Winnsboro.
The Senate has traditionally behaved in a less partisan fashion than the House. In fact, under outgoing Senate President John Alario, R-Westwego, the upper chamber frequently allied with Edwards to spend more money to provide public services than House conservatives wanted.
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Two powerful conservative interest groups — the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry and the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association — are gearing up once again to spend heavily to elect legislators. Both groups have already endorsed dozens of candidates.
Gifford Briggs, president of LOGA, said lawsuits filed by coastal parishes and land owners against oil and gas companies are discouraging oil and gas investment.
Stephen Waguespack, president of LABI, said his group’s top issues are having a favorable Legislature for legislative and congressional redistricting, to scrap Edwards’ changes to the state tax exemption law and to clamp down on lawsuits filed by attorneys representing clients injured in accidents.
“You’re never going to lower auto insurance rates unless you improve our legal climate,” Waguespack said.
Democrats pin the blame for the high rates on insurance companies, which might be less popular than trial attorneys.
Conservatives are so emboldened that they are trying to knock out one Republican whom they deem as not being conservative enough: Sen. Ryan Gatti, R-Bossier City, who was an LSU law school classmate of Edwards and has been willing to cross party lines to work with the governor. LABI, LOGA and the Louisiana Committee for a Conservative Majority have endorsed Robert Mills, a Republican who owns timber and oil and gas properties.
“I was one of six senators to vote against the sales tax (renewal) in 2018,” Gatti said in trying to burnish his conservative credentials. “I drafted and passed legislation that shut down the abortion clinic in Bossier City. I’ve stood strong for family values and small businesses.”
Attorney General Jeff Landry, who heads the Committee for a Conservative Majority, begs to differ. Ryan Gatti "has proven time and time again to support Gov. Edwards over Republicans,” he said in a statement. "The Senate needs new conservative leadership and Robert Mills."
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In Acadiana and the coastal parishes, the biggest race is to replace term-limited state Sen. Norby Chabert, R-Houma, a reliable supporter of the region’s oil and gas industry.
Mike Fesi, who owns a pipeline repair and maintenance company, has the support of the state’s major business lobbies for Senate District 20. He lost to Chabert four years ago.
Also running are former state Rep. Damon Baldone, a Republican, term-limited state Rep. Gisclair and two other candidates.
A key theme in this race — and other races in the region — is how to create jobs lost to the drop in oil prices.
Meanwhile, Johnson, LeBas and Cloud are competing to replace state Sen. Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, in Senate District 28, which includes Evangeline, St. Landry, Avoyelles and Allen parishes. Whoever wins will have big shoes to fill because LaFleur was a confidante of Alario, who named him to chair the Senate Finance Committee, which writes the Senate’s annual version of the state budget.
Farther west, former Rep. James Armes is one of four candidates running to replace term-limited state Sen. John Smith, R-Leesville, for Senate District 30. Armes, who hunts and fishes and is always good for a funny story about both, is the only Democrat in the race.
One of the Republican candidates is former state Rep. Brett Geymann, of Moss Bluff, who earned a reputation during his 12 years in the House as a fiscal hawk who frequently challenged Jindal’s spending practices. Geymann was the rare legislator who didn’t try to win favor with the governor to bring spending projects to his district.
Smith’s district includes Beauregard, Vernon and Calcasieu parishes.
Back in Acadiana, three Republicans and one Democrat are running to replace Barras, the term-limited speaker who has represented House District 48.
Three Democrats and one no-party candidate are running to replace state Rep. Terry Landry, D-New Iberia, who chose not to seek reelection in House District 96.
Districts 48 and 96 also include a portion of Lafayette and St. Martin parishes.
Three Republicans and one Democrat are running to replace state Rep. Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette, in House District 31. She is term-limited.
Perhaps the best-known candidate is businessman Gus Rantz, who finished fifth with 8% of the vote in the 2016 congressional primary for southwest Louisiana. Clay Higgins won that race in the runoff.
*The story incorrectly reported that more than half of state lawmakers are leaving the Legislature thanks to the voter-mandated term limit of 12 years in a single chamber. In fact, 47 of the 144 legislators were term-limited, and another 12 voluntarily left office.