The Louisiana Democratic Party continues to decline under a Democratic governor, John Bel Edwards.
The one bright spot for the party is that Edwards is the frontrunner heading into the Oct. 12 gubernatorial primary against two Republican challengers, U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham and businessman Eddie Rispone.
But the number of registered Democrats in Louisiana has continued to shrink since Edwards became governor in January 2016, and the Republicans’ majority in the state Legislature continues to widen.
Last week, no Democrat even qualified to try to replace three rural House Democrats who are leaving the lower chamber because of term limits. As a result, Republicans are now within striking distance of winning two-thirds of the seats in the House and Senate in the upcoming elections.
Meanwhile, during qualifying Tuesday through Thursday, no substantial Democrat stepped up to challenge any of the six Republican statewide incumbents who are running for re-election.
In an interview, Edwards predicted victory this year and professed not to be concerned about his party’s decline.
“I’m not here to prognosticate about why that’s happening,” he said. “I’m just telling you I’m not worrying about it. I’m governor for all of Louisiana. If you remember, four years ago I said I was going to put Louisiana first, not Democrats, not Republicans, and that’s what we’ve done, and people are responding.”
But Chris Cardona, an independent consultant who informally advises Democrats in the South, said Louisiana Democrats should be worried. He cited several factors for the party’s decline under Edwards.
“God, guns and abortion are the main cultural issues that prevent the Democrats from being relevant” in Louisiana, Cardona said. “The national party's positions on these issues have done a number on our ability to compete in rural districts.”
A key reason for Edwards’ success is that he hunts, is a devout Catholic and has broken with national Democrats by supporting anti-abortion legislation.
“The nationalization of politics by (President Donald) Trump” has further damaged Democrats in Louisiana, Cardona added. “Trump’s message is palpable with conservative voters because there is so much distrust in government.”
The failure to field stronger statewide candidates was especially damning for Democrats in the attorney general’s race.
The incumbent, Jeff Landry, has been the most partisan attorney general in recent memory and has repeatedly sought to trip up Edwards.
Yet the only Democrat who filed to oppose him was Ike Jackson, a retread candidate from 2015 who finished fourth with only 10% of the vote and who signed up to run this time only during the final hour of qualifying. Jackson is an attorney from Plaquemine who previously worked at the Department of Natural Resources.
As of Friday, he had yet to raise any money for his campaign or even establish a campaign website.
Facing a weak opponent, Landry could use a portion of the $2.1 million he had in his campaign finance account, as of July 4, to try to help defeat Edwards.
One Democrat decided to challenge Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser only because he was listening to Jim Engster’s “Talk Louisiana” radio show Thursday, heard that Nungesser was unopposed, pulled over to read what the job entails and then drove to the Secretary of State’s office to qualify for the race.
Rao Uppu is a Southern University professor in the biomedical and toxicology fields who lives in Prairieville and is originally from India.
Shortly before qualifying ended at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, Willie Jones, a member of state Democratic Party Committee, became the second Democrat to challenge Nungesser.
Neither Democrat had raised any money or created a campaign website as of Friday.
The Democrats are not fielding a challenger to Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon, who will square off against another Republican, Tim Temple.
Democrats are challenging the incumbent Republican state treasurer, secretary of agriculture and secretary of state. But Derrick Edwards, Charlie Greer and Gwen Collins-Greenup, respectively, have already lost to Treasurer John Schroder, Commissioner of Agriculture Mike Strain and Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin in previous elections.
“It’s a weak Democratic effort,” said John Couvillon, a Baton Rouge-based pollster and demographer.
In past years, state Rep. Walt Leger III of New Orleans is the kind of Democrat who would have been expected to seek statewide office. An effective debater, Leger has been the House speaker pro tem and has played a key role in every major issue in the Legislature over the past four years.
Leger cited family issues for not running — he has two infant daughters — and the financial impact of giving up his law practice to become attorney general, the office he considered.
“Certainly it’s a factor that it appears to be a challenge for Democrats to win statewide office,” Leger added.
Gene Reynolds, who was a Democratic leader in the state House from Webster Parish, just east of Shreveport, decided not to run for lieutenant governor because of family needs and concern that he didn’t have enough time to raise money.
“I’m a little disappointed that we don’t have stronger candidates,” Reynolds said. “Over the next couple of years, those of us who have been in the trenches need to start talking to people. There has not been a major recruiting effort in the rural areas.”
Creighton Wilson, a former teacher who is running for Reynolds’ old seat as a Democrat, said he has had no contact with Karen Carter Peterson, who chairs the Louisiana Democratic Party, or Stephen Handwerk, the party’s executive director, although he has received help from lower-level staffers.
Handwerk and Peterson, who is also a state senator from New Orleans, have held their positions since 2012. The party’s fortunes have declined precipitously during their tenure, including since Edwards became governor.
Handwerk and Peterson did not respond to an interview request.
Republicans gained a majority in the House in 2010 and in the Senate in 2011, for the first time since the post-Civil War Reconstruction era. In 2011, for the first time, Republicans swept all six statewide elected offices.
As recently as 2003, Democrats had won five of those posts.
Both of Louisiana’s senators in Washington were Democrats as recently as 2004. Now both are Republicans.
To be sure, Democrats have become an endangered species throughout the Deep South in recent years. In fact, Edwards is the only Democratic governor in that region — a point he doesn’t emphasize publicly in Louisiana but has noted in Facebook ads where he asks for campaign donations.
In January 2016, the breakdown in the Louisiana House was 61 Republicans, 42 Democrats and two without party affiliation. The breakdown today: 61 Republicans, 39 Democrats and five independents.
After qualifying but before the upcoming elections, the party breakdown is: 65 Republicans, 38 Democrats and two independents.
Only Republicans qualified for the seats currently held by state Reps. James Armes, D-Leesville; Truck Gisclair, D-Larose; Terry Brown, No Party-Colfax; and Jim Morris, No Party-Oil City. That’s a Republican pickup of four seats.
No Democrat filed to replace Rep. Sam Jones, D-Franklin, 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 old House seat, currently held by Republican Rep. Bubba Chaney, of Rayville.
“There’s a lack of engagement with the party,” said Cardona. “There is a limited focus on Louisiana outside of Baton Rouge and New Orleans. They’re not paying a lot of attention to these rural seats.”
Between January 2016 and Aug. 1 of this year, Democrats have lost 6% of their registered voters in Louisiana, from 1,331,636 to 1,257,611, a drop of 74,025, according to Couvillon.
Over that same period, Republicans have gained 10% more registered voters, from 821,886 to 913,766, an increase of 91,880.
The number of political independents has increased by 3%, from 756,654 to 781,670, a gain of 25,106.
As a result of these changes, 43% percent of voters are Democrats, 31% are Republicans and 26.5% are independents. In January 2016, 46% of Louisiana voters were registered as Democrats, 28% were Republicans and 26% were independents, according to Couvillon.
Louisiana’s Democratic Party is especially losing white voters.
There are 17% fewer white Democrats today than when Edwards took office — 497,879 today compared to 580,653 in January 2016.
As a result, the party's breakdown by race is: blacks 56.8%, whites 39.6%, other 3.6%.
Until recently, mayors in Louisiana were almost all white male Democrats. Now black Democrats and Republicans hold the reins at City Hall in Louisiana’s biggest cities. Sulphur, the state’s 16th biggest city, is the largest one governed by a white Democratic mayor, Mike Danahay, according to Couvillon.