Women legislative candidates

Democrats fielded 43 of the 76 women candidates running for legislative offices in the October elections. A handful of the candidates trained by Emerge Louisiana gathered at Baton Rouge City Hall after qualifying on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2019.

Some women talked of a sea change in the Louisiana Legislature as more females than ever before signed up last summer to run for one of the 144 seats in the House and Senate.

2019 was going to be the year of the woman. This election was going to be the one that lifted the Louisiana Legislature out of the cellar-dwelling distinction of having one of the nation’s lowest percentage of female lawmakers – in a state with more women than men.

None of that is going to happen.

In fact, after the Oct. 12 primary, fewer women have been elected to the 2020 Legislature than are members now. Seven Nov. 16 runoffs between women and men candidates could change those numbers, but realistically not by more than two or three seats, say most politicos.

“Women in Louisiana were energized by a number of things, by Trump, by #MeToo,” said G. Pearson Cross, a political scientist from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “They awoke, but they didn’t get into power. They need to be better funded. They need more name recognition.”

Fueled by an historic 117 women elected to Congress in 2018, many think as a reaction to President Donald Trump, coupled with the national attention put on powerful men who had sexually harassed women, political activism groups formed on both sides of partisan spectrum – Emerge Louisiana and the Louisiana Association of Business & Industry to name two – to recruit women and train women candidates.

Last year, when most states elected their legislators, more women won seats in state assemblies than at any time in the nation’s history.

But not this year in Louisiana.

In the current state House 18 of 105 representatives are women as are five of 39 state senators, or 15.9 percent. West Virginia and Mississippi have smaller ratios of women in their state assemblies than Louisiana. Women make up 28.9 percent of all state legislatures nationwide, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Thirty-eight of the 76 female legislative candidates lost outright in Louisiana’s Oct. 12 primary. (Six others withdrew before the vote.) Fifteen female incumbents won.

All the women candidates, combined, attracted 355,904 votes or about 31 percent of all the votes cast in races for the 144 seats of the Louisiana Legislature.

“A lot of women hired traditional consultants who look like the Legislature, mostly male,” said Mary-Patricia Wray, who worked strategy for Belinda Davis, a Democrat, facing another woman, Republican Barbara Freiberg, in the runoff for Baton Rouge House District 70.

“Women need to think about how best to tell their stories,” she said.

Bernie Pinsonat, the Baton Rouge pollster who has worked for several women legislative candidates, said for all the training over the summer about message and advertising, many women candidates didn’t toil long enough at partisan tasks, like volunteering on campaigns, before jumping into the races.

“They have to spend a year or two shaking hands and helping out. They weren’t part of the fabric,” Pinsonat said. “And they were running, in most cases, against someone who is already wired in.”

Candidates need about $75,000 to run a credible campaign for the House and more than $100,000 for the Senate, he said.

Only a dozen of the women legislative candidates in the 2019 cycle hit those goals. Donors don’t give to candidates they don’t know, Pinsonat said.

For the most part, women candidates ran with about a third of the money their male opponents had available, according to a review of campaign financial disclosures.

Three seats in the House and one in the Senate that had been held by women were won by men and one is still up in the air. But three House seats with male representatives will have women legislators in 2020. This means, pending runoff results, the Louisiana House now has 17 women members and the Senate stays the same with five.

Seven runoffs could change those sums.

Three of those races – two in the House and one in the Senate – are between Democratic women and Republican men in GOP districts where far more than half the votes cast in the primary were for Republican candidates. They are Beverly Brooks Thompson, a Democrat, against Republican Franklin Foil for Senate District 16 in East Baton Rouge Parish; Baton Rouge’s Republican-leaning 68th House District, in which Democrat Taryn Branson faces Republican Scott McKnight; and House District 71 in Livingston Parish, between Lori Callais, a Democrat, and Buddy Mincey Jr., a Republican who came about 520 votes from winning outright in a primary race in which 85 percent of the voters backed GOP candidates.

A fourth runoff, for House District 67 in Baton Rouge, Larry Selders received a thousand votes, about 11 percent, more than Leah Cullins. Both are Democrats.

Political professionals identify three competitive races where the women candidates have a shot.

One involves Kathy Edmonston versus Brandon Trosclair, both Republicans in conservative Ascension Parish’s 88th House District.

The other two competitive races for women are in New Orleans and all involve Democrats.

In the 91st House District, currently held by Rep. Walt Leger III, candidate Mandie Landry, a lawyer, was only 18 votes behind Robert McKnight, a staff attorney at the Orleans Public Defenders office in the primary.

And in House District 99, presently held by Rep. Jimmy Harris, Candace N. Newell, an attorney and Sewerage and Water Board Manager, was 36 votes shy of winning outright against Adonis Exposé, a Regional Transit Authority administrator.

If the women candidates in all three of the races political strategists say are reasonably competitive, then that would mean five female state senators and 20 women House members.

Camille Conaway, LABI’s senior vice president, spent a lot of time recruiting and training women candidates for the 2019 campaign. She found a few rays of hope in close races and better than expected performances of some candidates.

“But if there’s a lesson learned, it’s we have to start earlier. I’m thinking of 2023 now,” Conaway said. “We’ve already have started having conversations, really just planting that seed. … There’s a spark out there and we want to fan the flame.”

Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.