BR.capitolweather.adv HS 025.JPG

Storm clouds move in over the Louisiana State Capitol Thursday afternoon, September 12, 2019 in downtown Baton Rouge, La.

Republicans captured a supermajority in the Louisiana Senate in Saturday’s primary and have a good shot at winning a supermajority in the state House as well in next month’s runoff elections.

The gains reflect the continuing ascendance of Louisiana’s Republican Party and the ongoing decline of the state’s Democratic Party, which held a majority in the Legislature for roughly 140 years until 2011.

Heavy spending by business interests and the influence of President Donald Trump in rural southwest Louisiana appears to have been decisive for Republicans. Business-financed mailers and radio spots warned voters that Democratic candidates opposed efforts to lower car insurance rates and did the bidding of trial lawyers.

Republicans picked up two Democratic-held Senate seats on Saturday and are on track to have a 27-12 margin in the upper chamber if they hold onto a Baton Rouge Senate seat that will be decided in a runoff. Even if they don’t, they’ve already secured 26 seats, the Senate’s threshold for the two-thirds supermajority.

Following Saturday’s elections, Republicans have picked up eight House seats and lost one, for a net gain of seven. Because they held 61 seats, that puts their total at 68, two short of 70, the two-thirds threshold in the 105-member chamber. The 68 includes the five Republican seats that have gone to a runoff.

They can reach 70 if they hold onto all of those five seats and win two more races where their candidate faces a candidate without party affiliation.

The latter two races are for House District 50, now held by term-limited Rep. Sam Jones, D-Franklin, and House District 62, which Rep. Roy Darryl Adams, an independent from Jackson, won in a special election in March.

Republican candidates won a majority of votes in each of those seven districts in Saturday’s primary, noted state Rep. Lance Harris, of Alexandria, who spent the past eight years as the Republican caucus chairman.

“We’re in a real good position,” he said.

With a supermajority, Republicans would have the two-thirds vote required, at least on paper, to override a veto by Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, should Edwards win reelection on Nov. 16 against Republican businessman Eddie Rispone. Having a veto-proof margin could be crucial if Republicans redraw the state’s congressional and legislative districts, after release of the 2020 census figures, in a way that heavily favors the GOP.

In all, Republican legislative candidates won 64% of the vote versus 33% for Democrats on Saturday, according to John Couvillon, a Baton Rouge-based pollster and demographer.

Republicans flipped one Senate seat when Heather Cloud, the former mayor of Turkey Creek in Evangeline Parish, won a stunning 63% against two term-limited Democratic state representatives, state Rep. Robert Johnson, of Marksville, and state Rep. Bernard LeBas, of Ville Platte. Johnson is the House minority leader, the position Edwards held when he was elected governor.

State Sen. Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, who is also term-limited, has held that seat.

“They were relentless in the amount of attacks on us,” Johnson said on Monday. “My mother (in Turkey Creek) received 41 different mailers.” The negative fliers, he said, mostly came from the Louisiana Committee for a Conservative Majority, which is overseen by Attorney General Jeff Landry, and Louisiana Free Enterprise PAC, which is part of the Louisiana Association of Business & Industry.

Many of the mailers and radio spots focused on Johnson’s vote against House Bill 372, an insurance industry and business-backed bill that would have made it harder for trial lawyers to win big payouts when people are injured in car wrecks and industrial accidents. Johnson and others who voted against the bill noted that no evidence existed to show it would lower rates.

“They said I was for higher car insurance rates, but that’s not true,” said Johnson, noting that this year he sponsored House Bill 311, which would have mandated a 5% reduction in car insurance rates. It died before the House Insurance Committee headed by Rep. Kirk Talbot, R-River Ridge, the sponsor of HB372.

Republicans flipped a second Senate seat when Barry Milligan, a business consultant and banker, ousted state Sen. John Milkovich, D-Keithville, by winning 51% of the vote. Milkovich had endeared himself to social conservatives this year by sponsoring the strict anti-abortion bill that was approved by the Legislature and signed into law by Edwards, gaining nationwide attention. He also opposed HB372 when it arrived in the Senate.

“I took on powerful special interests, politicians and PACs in Baton Rouge because it was my job to represent the people,” Milkovich said in an email Monday.

Democrats are hoping to flip the Senate seat held by Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Republican, who is term-limited. Beverly Brooks Thompson, a Democrat, led Saturday’s primary with 34%. She faced off against two Republican House members who were term-limited: Steve Carter and Franklin Foil. Each man received 30%.

It's normally seen as a safe Republican district. But Thompson’s chances of winning improved Monday with news of an extraordinary development: both Carter and Foil received exactly the same number of votes, which means that both men are legally entitled to a spot in the runoff. If both men continue to run, they could split the Republican vote once again and allow Thompson to scoot into office. In a three-way runoff, the winning candidate need not achieve a majority.

Meanwhile, Republicans picked up eight seats held by Democrats and independents. Those were: House District 1, Rep. Jim Morris, No Party-Oil City; House District 22, Rep. Terry Brown, No Party-Colfax; House District 28, Rep. Johnson; House District 30, Rep. James Armes, D-Leesville; House District 32, Rep. Dorothy Sue Hill, D-Dry Creek; House District 32, Rep. LeBas; House District 54, Truck Gisclair, D-LaRose; House District 55, Rep. Dee Richard, No Party-Thibodaux.

Couvillon charted the precipitous fall of Democratic candidates — and Edwards in particular — in the districts held by Johnson and LeBas and in the Senate seat they sought.

In 2015, when LaFleur won reelection in Senate District 28, Edwards won 56% of his district. But he only won 36% on Saturday.

In 2015, when Johnson won reelection in House District 28, Edwards won 64% in his district. He only won 40% on Saturday.

In 2015, when LeBas won reelection in House District 38, Edwards won 57% in his district, compared with 34% on Saturday.

“I think the Trump effect was mostly acutely felt in the rural parts of the state that used to only elect Democrats,” Couvillon said, pointing to a likely backlash against national Democratic efforts to impeach Trump and visits by the president and his son to southwest Louisiana during the final week of the campaign.

Francis Thompson is the only Democrat who has flipped a Republican legislative seat, at least so far. Thompson, who is term-limited out of the Senate, won the House seat held by term-limited Rep. Bubba Chaney, R-Rayville, when nobody decided to challenge him. If Thompson serves out his term, he will become the longest-serving legislator in state history, having already served 46 years in the House and the Senate.

Email Tyler Bridges at tbridges@theadvocate.com.