John Bel Edwards is mostly right, and his critics mostly wrong, on the state of Louisiana’s economy. So why is a generally popular governor in relatively good economic times having a hard time being re-elected? It’s the D behind his name, when Rs win most major elections in Louisiana.
That last reality is reflected in the Legislature, where — before the Nov. 16 runoff elections — Republicans now hold a “supermajority” in the Senate and are close to achieving the same in the House. But just how super is that supermajority?
The governorship is the most powerful office in Louisiana. But Edwards has had to bend, quite often, to work across the aisle — which does not really exist, since members don’t sit by party in the state House and Senate. That exemplifies the more limited role that party has had in the Legislature.
In both Louisiana chambers, there are mostly Republican committee chairmen or vice chairmen, but also a number of Democrats in those leadership positions. The real divide has been, as so often, between the chambers, with the Senate frequently at odds with the House.
The narrative among more conservative true-believers, as they think of themselves, has been that senators are led by RINOs, Republicans in name only, such as the legendary John Alario, a former Democrat and outgoing Senate president. The theory of the supermajority is that with Alario out because of term limits, the senators will be more conservative and less likely to be wooed by the governor if he wins a second term.
On the most basic level, given the number of Rs, that’s true. But years ago in Republican politics, registered white Democrats began voting for the GOP in Edwin W. Edwards’ “open primary” system.
Among political operatives, they were “behavioral Republicans.”
In 2020, when the new Legislature is sworn in, it is very likely that we shall see less of a lock-step supermajority than a majority of “behavioral senators.”
That is, the 39 senators have larger districts, and even with the evils of partisan redistricting, more diverse electorates than many in the 105-member House. That is especially true in north Louisiana, where districts have become geographically larger over time as the region’s population has diminished compared to the south.
A senator who wants to be reelected — and don’t they all? — might have in his constituency ten town councils and several school boards, all of them seeking support if not outright pork-barrel spending from their member. The Senate is a smaller, clubbier place, too.
In both Senate and House, there are institutional reasons for the two bodies to be at odds — the larger chamber resents the smaller one, which considers itself more elite, quite often without good reason.
Many significant measures require a two-thirds vote on both sides. With members of both parties lining up at the governor’s door asking for favors, whatever the party label on the Fourth Floor office, defections from a 70-vote “supermajority” in the House could begin to be the rule rather than the exception. And senators in good standing in the "club" are apt to look for compromise rather than party-line confrontation.
Edwards has said repeatedly that his is a bipartisan administration and that he’s accomplished a great deal because of that approach. If challenger Eddie Rispone is elected, the party label on the Fourth Floor may be different, but the institutional and political realities remain.
Where does a supermajority matter? In 2020, if Edwards is re-elected, legislators will have to redraw lines after the national Census. That can be a party question, but it’s very unlikely that redistricting here will change the Republican-oriented lineup of U.S. House members. That’s what the national parties and the ultrapartisan locals care most about.
Leave aside the question of Rispone’s thin background in state government, but members of both chambers will likely be more assertive of their interests in a Rispone administration, simply because — unlike Edwards — the new governor will never have served with them and will have fewer personal ties.
And leave aside the split between, say, trial lawyers and business lobbyists, although that, too, cuts across party affiliation.
The party leaders might delude themselves into thinking they have a supermajority. But when it comes to what their constituents want, there are 144 members of the Party of No. 1.
Email Lanny Keller at firstname.lastname@example.org.